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Hagoort, Peter “The Uniquely Human Capacity for Language Communication: From POPE to [po:p] in Half a Second."

Peter Hagoort specializes in the study of the neural underpinnings of language. In “The Uniquely Human Capacity for Language Communication: From POPE to [po:p] in Half a Second,” he points out that the sophisticated capacity for language unique to humans and performed in various forms such as speaking, listening, writing, reading, and sign language, rests on a tripartite architecture: coding for meaning, for syntax, and for sound structures. A central component of language skills is the mental lexicon, a part of declarative memory that stores the meaning, syntactic properties, and sounds of roughly 40,000 words.

Hagoort has studied the order in which information is retrieved from the mental lexicon - for example, when one recognizes the image of a well-known person. Words are not discrete units, each to be found localized in some small circuit in the brain; the various components of the ability to use words are all stored differently. First there is a conceptual selection and specification process, followed by retrieval of syntactic information, and then by retrieval of a sound pattern - all of this resulting in the utterance “pope.” The different retrieval processes occur with high speed, and are temporally orchestrated with millisecond precision.

One of the ways in which the sequence of events involved in word retrieval has been studied is by recording electrical brain activity, using a series of electrodes attached to the scalp. The brain regions involved (mainly in the left hemisphere) have been localized by means of neurological data and brain imaging techniques.

Hagoort notes that the understanding of the neural substrate of language is an essential ingredient in an understanding of the human person, not only because sophisticated linguistic ability is unique to humans, but also because language itself mediates our sense of self.

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