Professor Petitto Presents Lecture at Georgetown University

April 24, 2019

Professor Laura-Ann Petitto presented a lecture entitled “What makes human language special? Is language special?” in the Georgetown University Neuroplasticity SuperLab Seminar led by Professor Elissa L. Newport, Professor, Department of Neurology; Director, Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, Georgetown University Medical Center.


Abstract: What makes human language special? Is language special?


In the mid 1970s, while still a college undergraduate, I began living with an infant chimpanzee, named Nim Chimpsky (after Noam Chomsky), in an attempt to teach Nim language. Part of a serious scientific experiment at Columbia University, the prevailing questions, both then and now, included “What makes human Language special? Is Language special?” While I will not dwell on the life and capacities of chimpanzees, instead, in this presentation, I share the experimental fruits of the intervening 40+ year journey to answer these prevailing questions about humans. I suggest that human language is “special,” but not because there is speech and sound. Surprising discoveries about the biologically equivalent maturational and neural systems underlying spoken and silent signed languages challenge this speech and sound-based view. Instead, I suggest that dedicated neural systems sensitive to specific rhythmic temporal patterning unique to natural language catapult young infants’ entry into language acquisition and constitute a discrete sensitive period. I further note dramatic features of the neural instantiation of human language that evidence the brain’s stunning neuroplasticity, and, equally fascinating, features that doggedly resist it. This work bears the mark of the pioneering disciplines that were to evolve over the decades, and how advances in technology were pushed further to reveal new answers about language, including PET, MRI, fMRI, OPTOTRAK, and fNIRS. Most recently, the experiments include Robots, Avatars, and advanced computational integration of fNIRS and Thermal Infrared Imaging (measures ANS parasympathetic-sympathetic emotion regulation), with Eye/Face-Tracking. Beyond “what makes human language special,” these novel advances permit unparalleled insights into how nascent neural mechanisms contribute to language acquisition in our species.

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