There are more than 6,000 languages in the world. They might look very different but, from the point of view of the brain, they all share an essential unity.

Language is everywhere. No culture has been documented to not have a language. Wherever we go in the world, if we find two people, they will surely be talking in a spoken language, or in a signed one.

As we observe this omnipresence of language in our species, we also observe what looks like a great linguistic diversity at first sight. If we examine the languages in the world, the resulting picture appears to show a very high degree of variation.

Nevertheless, the languages in the world share among them more features than meets the eye. These similitudes, which often go unnoticed on the surface, become evident when we review the pieces of data provided by neuroscience, linguistics, psychology, or biology.

Unity in diversity

Neither language nor the brain fossilize... what resources do we have available to know how they evolved?

The brain of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, has some parts that are comparable to the language-related areas of our own brain. Furthermore, chimpanzees are sophisticated animals. And yet they do not have language. So, how and when did we get it?

The last common ancestor shared by our lineage and the lineage leading to chimpanzees lived around 8 million years ago. Still, language as we know it is probably very recent: it is a symbolic activity, and there is no evidence of symbolic thought before 80,000 years ago.

Hominina who talk

It is becoming increasingly evident that language consists in a widely distributed network in the brain.

After centuries of effort to try to find the keys that would allow to locate language and the rest of superior cognitive functions in specific areas in the brain, neurologists have had to face the proliferation of discoveries that point to the fact that the number of regions intervening in linguistic processing is, indeed, very large.

In the last years, the efforts in research have shifted to focusing connectivity over geometry. It is possible that this kind of network organization is one of the key features for brain plasticity.

The role of form

For children, there are no easier or harder languages: they all can acquire any language in the world going through very uniform stages.

Kids everywhere in the world acquire language in a very similar way, regardless of which is their mother tongue. Language is something that comes naturally to infants, yet its acquisition often becomes a labyrinth of questions and puzzles for researchers who are trying to figure out how babies do it.

We have not yet managed to describe in detail the misterious process by which kids acquire language. This learning is produced in a very natural way and follows its own path despite all the efforts that we might make to control it.

Beyond the uterus

Modern technology is constantly giving us more powerful tools to advance the knowledge of the brain.

Neurons are constantly engaged in feverish activity. They are constantly passing on electric signals in a seemingly chaotic manner, especially during waking hours. Nevertheless, patterns emerge that can be tied to specific activities, like language, attention, alertness...

These patterns correspond to groups of neurons working together. They can be effectively and safely captured using techniques like the electroencephalogram, they can be monitored through the implantation of deep electrodes, or they can be observed in an indirect way using psychological tests.

At the speed of thought

Sadly, language can be damaged during life. In these cases, it does not break down chaotically, but rather it follows regular patterns.

The disintegration of language caused by different pathologies can follow well defined patterns that are key to exploring its relation with the brain.

Behind this, however, are minds that have been shaken by the decay of one of the pillars that rooted them to the world. We now know that language and cognition are two sides of the same coin. But, does losing one always affect the other?

When language does not connect