Unlike the communicative systems of other species, human language allows us to transmit an essentially unlimited set of meanings to other people. Spoken language is an evolved skill and is acquired at an early age by all normally developing humans. Written language is a human invention that must be intentionally learned. The unique expressive power of language derives from the human ability to combine smaller units of language into larger ones, at multiple levels. Sounds can be combined to form words, morphemes can be combined to form complex words and words can be combined to form phrases, clauses and sentences. These combinations are governed by complex grammatical rules. Language production and comprehension are ‘real‐time’ processes that rely on specific cognitive abilities and neural circuitry. Information about the neurobiology of language comes from studying the consequences of brain lesions and from electrophysiological and brain imaging studies of healthy individuals.

Key Concepts

  • Human language is an evolved system for transmitting an enormous array of specific meanings.
  • The lexicon is a store of symbols for concepts, and syntax is a body of rules for combining them.
  • The speech planning process is revealed by a careful study of speech errors.
  • Our ability to perceive distinctive speech sounds depends on categorical perception.
  • We compute separate representations of sentence meaning and grammatical form.
  • The brain region most closely linked to language is the cortex surrounding the sylvian fissure in the left hemisphere.
  • Specific language disorders can occur with restricted damage to particular brain structures or regions.

Keywords: phonemes; morphemes; syntax; speech planning; brain lesions; categorical perception; magnetic resonance imaging; event‐related potentials; perisylvian cortex; aphasia; anomia

Figure 1. Lateral view of the perisylvian language zone in the left hemisphere.
Figure 2. Transverse section of the brain showing Broca's and Wernicke's areas. Approximate level of slice is indicated in Figure.


Caplan D (1992) Language: Structure, Processing and Disorders. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dell G (1995) Speaking and misspeaking. In: Gleitman L and Liberman M , (eds). Language: An Invitation to Cognitive Science. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Liberman AM , Harris KS , Hoffman HS and Griffith BC (1957) The discrimination of speech sounds within and across phoneme boundaries. Journal of Experimental Psychology 54: 358–368.

Martin A , Wiggs CL , Ungerleider LG and Haxby JV (1996) Neural correlates of category‐specific knowledge. Nature 379: 649–651.

Osterhout L , McLaughlin J and Bersick M (1997) Event‐related brain potentials and human language. Trends in Cognitive Science 1: 203–209.

Pinker S (2007) The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Romberg AR and Saffran JR (2010) Statistical learning and language acquisition. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 1: 906–914.

Sampson G (1987) Writing Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Seyfarth RM , Cheney DL and Marler P (1980) Vervet monkey alarm calls: semantic communication in a free‐ranging primate. Animal Behaviour 28 (4): 1070–1094.

Further Reading

Catani M and ffytche DH (2005) The rises and falls of disconnection syndromes. Brain 128: 2224–2239.

Damasio H , Grabowski TJ , Tranel D , Hichwa RD and Damasio AR (1996) A neural basis for lexical retrieval. Nature 380: 499–505.

Dronkers N (2005) Lesion analysis of brain areas involved in language comprehension. Cognition 92: 145–177.

Goodglass H (1993) Understanding Aphasia. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Goodglass H and Wingfield A (eds) (1997) Anomia: Neuroanatomical and Cognitive Correlates. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

McLaughlin J , Kim A and Osterhout L (2004) Neural correlates of second‐language word learning: minimal instruction produces rapid change. Nature Neuroscience 7: 703–704.

Mori S and Zhang J (2006) Principles of diffusion tensor imaging and its applications to basic neuroscience research. Neuron 51: 527–539.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Osterhout, Lee(Jun 2015) Language. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000151.pub2]