Language and communication are as vital as food and water. We communicate to exchange information, build relationships, and create art. In this Spotlight feature, we look at how language manifests in the brain, and how it shapes our daily lives.

We are all born within a language, so to speak, and that typically becomes our mother tongue.

Along the way, we may pick up one or more extra languages, which bring with them the potential to unlock different cultures and experiences.

Language is a complex topic, interwoven with issues of identity, rhetoric, and art.

As author Jhumpa Lahiri notes meditatively in the novel The Lowlands , “Language, identity, place, home: these are all of a piece — just different elements of belonging and not-belonging.”

But when did our ancestors first develop spoken language, what are the brain’s “language centers,” and how does multilingualism impact our mental processes?

We will look at these questions, and more, in this Spotlight feature about language and the brain.

What makes human language special?

When did spoken language first emerge as a tool of communication, and how is it different from the way in which other animals communicate?

As Prof. Mark Pagel, at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, explains in a “question and answer” feature for BMC Biology, human language is quite a unique phenomenon in the animal kingdom.

While other animals do have their own codes for communication — to indicate, for instance, the presence of danger, a willingness to mate, or the presence of food — such communications are typically “repetitive instrumental acts” that lack a formal structure of the kind that humans use when they utter sentences.

By contrast, Prof. Pagel adds, human language has two distinctive characteristics. These are:

that it is “compositional,” meaning that it “allows speakers to express thoughts in sentences comprising subjects, verbs, and objects”

that it is “referential,” meaning that “speakers use it to exchange specific information with each other about people or objects and their locations or actions”

Origins and importance of language

As Homo sapiens , we have the necessary biological tools to utter the complex constructions that constitute language, the vocal apparatus, and a brain structure complex and well-developed enough to create a varied vocabulary and strict sets of rules on how to use it.

Though it remains unclear at what point the ancestors of modern humans first started to develop spoken language, we know that our Homo sapiens predecessors emerged around 150,000–200,000 years ago. So, Prof. Pagel explains, complex speech is likely at least as old as that.

It is also likely that possessing spoken language has helped our ancestors survive and thrive in the face of natural hardships.

Partly thanks to their ability to communicate complex ideas, Prof. Pagel says, “humans can adapt at the cultural level, acquiring the knowledge and producing the tools, shelters, clothing, and other artefacts necessary for survival in diverse habitats.”

Language in the brain

But where, exactly, is language located in the brain? Research has identified two primary “language centers,” which are both located on the left side of the brain.

These are Broca’s area, tasked with directing the processes that lead to speech utterance, and Wernicke’s area, whose main role is to “decode” speech.

If a person experienced a brain injury resulting in damage to one of these areas, it would impair their ability to speak and comprehend what is said.

However, additional research shows that learning more languages — and learning them well — has its own effect on the brain, boosting the size and activity of certain brain areas separate from the traditional “language centers.”

A study led by researchers from Lund University in Sweden found that committed language students experienced growth in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and spatial navigation, as well as in parts of the cerebral cortex, or the outmost layer of the brain.

Moreover, a study previously covered by Medical News Today found evidence to suggest that the more languages we learn, especially during childhood, the easier our brains find it to process and retain new information.

It seems that language-learning boosts brain cells’ potential to form new connections fast.