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Language and the Brain

The brain is responsible for producing and understanding language.

This includes:

  • speaking,
  • understanding what others say,
  • reading,
  • writing, and
  • using sign language.

The brain is divided into two hemispheres (sides) – the left and right side.

For 97% of people, language is processed in the left side of the brain.

For 3% of people, language is in the right side of the brain instead. This is more common in people who are left-handed.

Damage to the side of the brain that processes language (usually the left side) often causes aphasia (impaired language).

Each side (hemisphere) of the brain is divided into four lobes: frontal lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, and occipital lobe. In the left side of the brain, there are important areas for language in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes.

Broca’s area

In 1861, a French neurologist called Paul Broca found the first language area in the brain. It is called Broca’s area. Broca’s area is in the left frontal lobe. Damage to Broca’s area can cause people to have difficulty speaking and getting their words out.

Wernicke’s area

In 1874, a German neurologist called Karl Wernicke found another important language area in the brain. This is called Wernicke’s area. Wernicke’s area is in the left temporal lobe. Damage to Wernicke’s area can cause people to have difficulty understanding spoken and written language.

Other language areas

Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are connected to each other by nerve pathways in the brain. There are also several other important language areas in the brain. All the language areas work together in a network to allow us to speak and understand language. Damage to any part of this network can cause difficulty producing or understanding language.

The right side of the brain (right hemisphere) is also involved in some parts of language, such as intonation (the “melody” of speech), and using and understanding “nonliteral” aspects of language, such as irony, sarcasm, and metaphor.

The temporal lobes on both the left and right side of the brain are involved in using our knowledge of the world (semantics). Damage to these areas can cause difficulties with semantics. Semantic difficulties are common in people with aphasia.

The brain is very complex, and there is a lot that will still do not know about how language works in the brain. Because of this, sometimes it can be hard to predict how brain damage will impact someone’s language function.


Content contributed by: Associate Professor Stephen Wilson, Dr. Sonia Brownsett and Professor David Copland.
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