Learning to Read and Write: Language on the Brain

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Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Learning to Read and Write: Language on the Brain

Tua Chaudhuri

When I was little, my favorite book was Happy Birthday Moon. For a while, it was my nightly bedtime story. Anyone who offered to read aloud to me was immediately proffered this book. After some time, I knew the story by heart, word for word. I could not quite read the book but I had memorized the framework of it and so could tell the story myself. The day that I learned to finally recognize the words themselves was so exciting. When the blur of squiggly lines on the page became letters with sound and meaning, a whole new dimension opened up. Every form of human expression is codified within some framework of language. As an English major, I study how people manipulate and interpret language in order to communicate. As a tutor with a reading enrichment program, I sometimes encounter kids who do not share this love of reading and writing. As it is my job to help them master and gather more enjoyment from their dealings with language, and since brain equals behavior, I thought this web paper the perfect opportunity to ask few questions. How does the brain process language? Why do some people enjoy reading and writing better than others do? Why is it easier for some people to learn to manipulate language? And which came first the brain, or the linguistic framework that defines and identifies it? I have learned that language, like the nervous system, is a complicated blueprint which humans use to communicate with, navigate, and interpret, the world.

For most people, the parts of the brain that process language are located in the left hemisphere (3). The primary sections in the brain that allow us to read, write, and speak communicably are: the left frontal cortex or Borca's Area, the posterior part of the temporal lobe or Wernicke's Area and a bundle of nerves called the arcuate fasciculus (3). The angular gyrus, at the back of the brain, interprets the words and letters that compose language (4). In order for a word or a sentence to be understood when it is read, an action potential must travel the network of these various parts. First, the information must get from the page to the primary visual cortex. From there is must go to the posterior angular gyrus, near Wernicke's area. Then, if the word or sentence is to be read aloud, it must travel to Borca's Area and the primary motor cortex (3). Language is processed in three ways: visually, phonologically, and cognitively. Sight, sound, and meaning all mesh together to reproduce and interpret the written word.

Words are the signifiers in our system of linguistics. When a person sees a word, the brain associates that word with a representation or picture of whatever it is that word signifies. In order to be able to process the connection, the brain has to recognize the thing itself, and the group of letters that form the word that represents it. Reading is almost like speaking, the difference lies in the extra activity of the occipital lobe (6). In order to be able to read children must be able to speak and understand spoken language first (6). While learning to speak is a natural process, learning to read is not. The ability to understand language and speak evolved over thousands of years, the ability to read and write was invented by man only a few centuries ago (7). If brain equals behavior, this would implicate that, while the brain is structured to interpret language, but must be developed, must be taught to read and write. So, if as a child, an individual is not taught to read and taught to enjoy reading, there Dr. George Ojemann suggests that the time it takes the process to learn to read to occur depends upon the area that the brain devotes to language. He used electrical stimulation to demonstrate that the amount of this area varies from one brain to another (3). The reason that I like to read, while my tutee runs at the mere mention of a book is that my brain has developed a larger language processing center. Neurobiologists have found that individuals who have dyslexia and other such learning abilities, have incurred damage in the parts of the brain which control language. All of these arguments follow the brain equals behavior theory. Because reading is something that is learned by the brain, a person's activities shape their neurological networks and abilities. The love of reading has to be nurtured and developed. Although the brain is equipped with a love of words, it has to be molded to enjoy deciphering those words codified in rows on pieces of paper.

American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf believes that language and thought influence each other. Language expresses thought, but language also shapes thought (2). If this were true, the language read and written by an individual affects the way that they think. Language then becomes an introduction to one's culture, one's system of thought. This would also suggest that translation does not really work. You have to have the correctly shaped brain to truly interpret a piece of writing. In her poem, Emily Dickinson claims that the "brain is wider than the sky" and that it can "contain you besides "(1). Language can basically do the same thing. Without language, Dickinson would not only have had no means to express, communicate the idea that the brain contains all, but she would not have been able to think it. The brain created language, but it is with this language that we explore and identify the capacities of that brain.


1) SerendipEmily Dickinson Poem

2) Language as a Neural Process

3) Oh say can you say

4)The Brain and Language

5)Dyslexia and Language Brain Areas

6)On the Brain



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