How language is processed by your brain

Pictured here is an MRI image of a human brain.

Story highlights

  • The regions of the brain involved with language are not straightforward
  • Different words have been shown to trigger different regions of the brain
  • The human brain can grow when people learn new languages

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(CNN)If you read a sentence (such as this one) about kicking a ball, neurons related to the motor function of your leg and foot will be activated in your brain. Similarly, if you talk about cooking garlic, neurons associated with smelling will fire up. Since it is almost impossible to do or think about anything without using language -- whether this entails an internal talk-through by your inner voice or following a set of written instructions -- language pervades our brains and our lives like no other skill.

For more than a century, it's been established that our capacity to use language is usually located in the left hemisphere of the brain, specifically in two areas: Broca's area (associated with speech production and articulation) and Wernicke's area (associated with comprehension). Damage to either of these, caused by a stroke or other injury, can lead to language and speech problems or aphasia, a loss of language.
In the past decade, however, neurologists have discovered it's not that simple: language is not restricted to two areas of the brain or even just to one side, and the brain itself can grow when we learn new languages.