Part of the Brain: The Inside Story exhibition.

The human brain is built for language. But language doesn't just communicate our thoughts. Language also helps make those thoughts possible--by providing the concepts we think with and rules for linking them together. What differentiates our ability to use language from the ways in which other animals communicate?

How it Works

© 2010 The Great Ape Trust

Many animals communicate using a few, wordlike symbols. But most can't arrange these symbols into complex patterns. True language requires both words and syntax--a way to combine words into sentences. Whales, in contrast, seem to do the opposite: Their “songs” contain highly structured patterns, but no words. Theoretically, human language could have evolved either way--starting from a few simple words, or from wordless, songlike patterns of sound.

Recent brain research shows that humans have enlarged areas on the left side of the cortex that help us process language. These areas are also enlarged in chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living relatives. A bonobo named Kanzi has learned to use several hundred words by touching symbols on a keyboard. He can even decode simple sentences.

Language regions are most flexible during childhood. Brain scans show that when young children learn a second language, it is processed in the same part of their brain as their first language. But if a second language is learned later in life, it gets processed in a different place. That's why if a family is learning a new language together, the child can learn to speak the language without an accent, while her parents might speak it with a foreign accent for the rest of their lives.

© 2010 The Great Ape Trust

There is no single language area in the human brain; these areas exist on both the right and left sides of the brain. In most people, the left side handles the literal meaning of words, and the right side interprets tone of voice and the more nuanced aspects of communication.