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Review of  Language and the Brain

Reviewer: Niels O. Schiller
Book Title: Language and the Brain
Book Author: Loraine K. Obler Kris Gjerlow
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 11.487

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Obler, Loraine K. and Gjerlow, Kris (1999), "Language and the
Brain", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK) (Cambridge
approaches to linguistics). ISBN 0-521-46641-5. Paperback. xviii+206

Reviewed by Niels Schiller, Harvard University

This book presents a brief introduction into "the study of language
in the brain." The book is divided into twelve chapters, mostly
focusing on language use in brain-damaged patients. Each chapter
ends with a brief summary. The text part comprises 168 pages,
followed by a glossary covering many of the technical terms from the
field of neurolinguistics that are used in the volume. The glossary
is followed by a very selective list of further readings, a list of
references, an author index, and a subject index.

The book starts with an attempt to define more exactly what the
study of neurolinguistics involves. Due to its multidisciplinary
nature, this is a difficult job, but it seems to be clear that
linguists, psycholinguists, neuropsychologists, as well as
neurologists all have an interest in how language is structured in
the brain. In the first chapter, the authors give a brief history
about the field of neurolinguistics. They mention the classic works
by Broca and Wernicke, as well as the Boston School and its role in
modern aphasiology.

The second chapter provides a basic overview of the neuroanatomical
structures in the brain. The reader is familiarized with the
architecture of neurons and how neurons communicate with each other
via electrochemical processes. Furthermore, the division of the
cortex into lobes is described, and the most important gyri and
sulci are briefly mentioned. The reader is also introduced to the
well-known and still widely used division of the cortex by Brodmann
(the so-called "Brodmann Areas").

Armed with this information, the authors present the most important
research methodologies for localizing the hemispheric dominance for
language in Chapter 3. These include the investigation of brain-
damaged patients, the anesthetizing of one hemisphere (the so-called
"Wada test"), tachistoscopic presentation to only one visual field,
dichotic listening, and the investigation of split-brain patients.
Data from all of these methods suggest that the dominance of the
left hemisphere for language for most people is uncontroversial.
What is more difficult to determine is which areas in the left
hemisphere are responsible for what kind of linguistic processing.
Historically, research on this question began when Broca and
Wernicke presented their patients more than 100 years ago. So-called
"Broca's aphasics" are considered to be non-fluent in speech
production while comprehension is relatively spared. In contrast,
so-called "Wernicke's aphasics" are relatively fluent, but their
speech usually contains a lot of circumlocutions and phonemic
paraphasias, i.e., sound substitutions, rendering their speech hard
to understand; their comprehension is severely impaired. With the
help of cortical stimulation and, above all, modern brain imaging
techniques such as PET, (f)MRI, and ERP, it is possible to localize
lesions in brain-damaged patients and to identify the activity of
brain areas in healthy subjects while they are engaged in certain
linguistic tasks.

The next two chapters (Chapters 4 and 5) are about the
classification of aphasic syndromes and their underlying symptoms.
Aphasia is an impairment in the area of language without other
cognitive deficits. Broca's and Wernicke's aphasia are described,
but an introductory book like the present volume does not allow for
explanations of much detail. What is helpful, however, is that the
authors provide examples of what the speech of certain patients
sounds like (usually descriptions of the "Cookie Theft" picture).
Other forms of aphasia, such as conduction aphasia, anomic aphasias
(naming problems), pure word deafness (due to injury to Heschl's
gyrus), and subcortical aphasias are briefly mentioned as well. The
phenomenon of agrammatism, i.e., speech production without producing
the appropriate grammatical affixes and function words, is discussed
relatively extensively. For example, the authors discuss questions
such as the preserved syntactic competence in agrammatism and
whether or not agrammatism should be considered a coherent syndrome.
The authors further try to argue that Broca's aphasia, Wernicke's
aphasia, and conduction aphasia can each be linked to a particular
area in the brain. If this area is injured, the result is a
characteristic deficit.

Chapter 6 is about childhood aphasia. It is basically about language
acquisition and tries to make the connection to brain development in
the child. The cases of Genie and other children with specific
language impairment (SLI) are discussed. However, this chapter seems
disconnected from the previous and the following chapter, and it is
difficult for the reader to see the connection between this chapter
and the rest of the volume. Maybe it would have been better to try
and incorporate the facts about childhood aphasia in the previous

The next chapter (Chapter 7) talks about damage to the right
hemisphere of the brain. Since aphasic syndromes are mostly -- but
not always -- tied to the left hemisphere, the book up until this
chapter focused primarily on the left hemisphere. However, certain
aspects of linguistic processing, such as the processing of
suprasegmental structures are mainly done by the right hemisphere.
Therefore, it is important to also describe the consequences of
right hemisphere damage for the use of language. Some studies on
discourse production of right-hemisphere patients revealed some
subtle deficits in verbal pragmatic aspects; other studies showed
that these patients have difficulties with non-literal, that is,
metaphoric usage of language. The chapter ends with a discussion of
"split-brain" patients, i.e., patients in which the connection
between the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum, has been cut in an
attempt to treat severe epilepsy. Because the communication between
the two hemispheres is interrupted in these patients, they provide a
clear case for the investigation of the language abilities of the
individual hemispheres. Michael Gazzaniga has done important
research on these patients and found interesting results about the
abilities of the individual hemispheres.

Chapter 8 focuses on dementia, e.g., as the result of Alzheimer's or
Parkinson's disease, and its consequences for language processing.
Patients with dementia experience word finding difficulties more
frequently than healthy subjects. At this point, however, it is
unclear whether word finding problems in Alzheimer's patients, for
instance, are due to permanent loss of lexical representations or
whether they are rather due to difficulty in accessing those
representations. The problem of distinguishing between aphasic and
demented patients is also discussed. Interestingly, the first author
of this volume co-authored a paper claiming that one of the two
supposedly aphasic patients presented by Wernicke in 1874 was
clearly demented.

In the next chapter, Chapter 9, specific language deficits are
discussed, namely dyslexia and dysgraphia. Both are impairments
involve written language processing: dyslexia is a reading deficit,
and dysgraphia is a spelling deficit. Developmental dyslexia
(childhood dyslexia) and acquired dyslexia (caused by brain damage)
have to be distinguished because they are caused by different
syndromes. Developmental dyslexia is presumably caused by the
inability to fully process the phonological input at a critical
period, while acquired dyslexia is due to damage to the written word
processing system. Several different forms of acquired dyslexia can
be distinguished: surface dyslexia, i.e., the ability to read
written input only via a non-lexical route (grapheme-to-phoneme
conversion), and phonological dyslexia, i.e., reading written input
only via the lexical route. Typically, surface dyslexics make errors
on irregular words while phonological dyslexics cannot read pseudo-
words. If the semantic system in phonological dyslexics is also
damaged, the deficit is referred to as "deep dyslexia". Typically,
deep dyslexics make semantic errors in reading (e.g., producing
"queen" in response to the written stimulus "king"). A disadvantage
of an introductory volume like this is always that some issues
cannot be discussed with enough depth. For example, the authors
claim that processing differences between abstract and concrete
words have been reported in dyslexic patients suggesting that these
two types of words are organized differently in the lexicon.
However, they do not say how abstract and concrete words might
differ in their lexical representations. The discussion about
dysgraphia is not satisfactory because it is much too short;
slightly more than one page is clearly too little space for such a
complex and well-studied deficit.

In Chapter 10, the authors discuss the phenomenon of bilingualism.
Of special interest to the psycholinguist is of course the question
of lexical organization in the bilingual (e.g., are the two lexicons
of a bilingual completely separated or are they perhaps partially
combined?). Presumably, a single semantic system maps onto language-
specific word forms in bilinguals. Unfortunately, the latest
knowledge that we have about these questions did not make its way
into this book (see latest issues of "Bilingualism: Language and
Cognition", an international journal for the latest research in
bilingualism). Recent experimental evidence by Costa, Miozzo, and
Caramazza (1999) suggests that bilinguals, when producing speech,
consider only words of the target language for lexical selection. In
the chapter about bilingualism, phenomena such as code-switching and
general second language acquisition abilities are also briefly

In Chapter 11 the authors introduce linguistic theory. In this
chapter, they try to tie these linguistic theories into what has
been said earlier in the volume. On the one hand, this late
discussion about linguistic theory has the advantage that all the
data and facts about language and the brain have already been stated
and can now be set into relation with the constructs of linguistic
theory. On the other hand, this is a disadvantage for those readers
who may have particularly little knowledge about linguistic theory;
for less knowledgeable readers, it would have been better to discuss
the basic linguistic levels in the beginning.

Finally, in the last chapter of this volume the authors make
predictions about where the field of neurolinguistics will go in the
future. The possible contributions and values of artificial
intelligence, brain imaging, and neurophysiology are assessed, and
the need for cross-linguistics studies is emphasized.

In summary, this is a decent introductory book about the study of
language and the brain. Researchers in the field of aphasiology will
probably not profit very much from it because the book is too basic.
For the beginning student, however, it may be an ideal introduction
because a broad range of topics is covered. The historic
developments and classic papers are mentioned in the individual
areas of research, and further readings are suggested. The
individual chapters are relatively independent of each other and can
be read independently. Unfortunately, very little is said about new
imaging techniques and what their merits for the field may be.
Nevertheless, the book seems to be an excellent source for a quick
overview of the field of neurolinguistics. The truly interesting
work, however, only starts once one gets involved into more specific
issues. Due to space constraints, this volume cannot serve this


Costa, A., Miozzo, M., & Caramazza, A. (1999). Lexical selection in
bilinguals: Do words in the bilingual's two lexicons compete for
selection? Journal of Memory and Language, 41, 365-397.

Reviewer's biography

>From 1994 to 1998, the reviewer worked at the Max Planck Institute
for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In 1997, he
received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Nijmegen University. In his
Ph.D. dissertation, he investigated the role of the syllable in
lexical access during speech production. Since March 1998, he has
been affiliated with the Cognitive Neuropsychology Laboratory of the
Psychology Department at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA (USA).
His research interests include phonological and morphological
encoding in speech production, language processing in neurologically
impaired patients, articulatory-motor processes during speech
production, and forensic phonetics.


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