Language in the brain

Language in the brain: Critical assessments. By Fred C. C. Peng. New York: Continuum, 2005. Pp. xix, 322. ISBN 9780826438843. $60.

Reviewed by Susan Windisch Brown, University of Colorado

Recent advances in brain imaging have inspired linguists, psychologists, and neuroscientists to explore more deeply the brain functions involved in language. With this book, Fred Peng attempts to provide these scientists with the information needed from outside their core fields to pursue this task competently. Additionally, P presents his model of language in the brain while exhorting linguists to abandon the nonsensical claim that syntax plays any role in language (229). The book is divided into five main parts: (i) a historical overview of how various fields have defined language and where they went wrong, (ii) a proposal on how to correct scientists’ misunderstanding of language and appropriately redirect their efforts, (iii) a primer on neuroanatomy, (iv) P’s explanation of the brain functions that support language, and (v) an outline of a model of language production and reception.

In the introduction, P argues against language innatism and promotes the importance of neuroanatomy to the analysis of language, warning that without it, linguistics will most likely be renamed pseudo-theology (xvi). The historical overviews of linguistics and semiotics that follow seem largely accurate, although P neglects to mention any theories of functional linguistics or research in psycholinguistics. He concludes this section by describing how medical specialists, including aphasiologists, have grossly obfuscated and misunderstood language (48).

Part 2 proposes a new direction for linguistics, semiotics, and neuroscience that establishes improved communication between these fields. P suggests an extension of Ferdinand de Saussure’s langue/parole distinction that subdivides each into individual and social aspects.

Next, P describes in detail the development of the human nervous system and the parts of the brain. However, this section is peppered with controversial comments presented with no direct engagement with opposing theories. For example, P asserts, ‘communication disorders include autism, dementia, mental retardation [. . .] which are actually none other than various forms of language disorder’ (71). No research is cited to either support or contest this claim.

In Part 4, P fleshes out his theory that language is memory-governed, meaning-centered, and multifaceted. Several widely accepted notions about brain functions are challenged, often by refuting extreme forms of these claims. For example, P explains that the idea of regional specializations in the brain—such as those for language or facial recognition—is based on the view that each is ‘manipulated exclusively by a designated brain structure […] as if other brain functions, such as memory, play no role in these so-called specializations’ (235).

Finally, a model of language production and reception is presented, in which production is achieved by binding concepts to motor images. These then separate so that motor impulses can be sent to the appropriate physical apparatus. Crucial to this model is the notion that proto-meanings are chunked into pieces to match the number of acoustic images they are to be bound to. At the same time, these chunks are lined up in ‘some kind of a vague time axis’ (259). Unfortunately, it is not clear how this chunking, binding, and sequencing is achieved or how it is different from syntax, the existence of which P has repeatedly denied.

This book may be useful to linguists looking for a primer on neuroanatomy, although care would have to be taken to independently identify which descriptions of brain functions are supported by current research in the field. As a resource of linguistic theory for psychologists and neuroscientists, this book neglects to include many theories of interest to those fields. Additionally, P’s strawman techniques and simple dismissals of opposing theories undermine the credibility of his claims. This book does provide, however, important reminders that language and speech are not separate entities, that language requires the use of many parts of the brain, and that the hearer’s reconstructed meaning of an utterance is not exactly the same as the speaker’s intended meaning.