Rice University

Linguistics 411, Neurolinguistics

Introduction and Course Outline

"If the brain were simple enought for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it."

Introduction to the Course

This course explores the neurological basis of our ability to speak, understand speech, learn languages, and read and write. We seek to learn what the information is that makes these processes possible, how it is acquired, and how it is represented in the brain. We draw upon evidence from linguistics, aphasiology, cognitive neuroscience, and perceptual neuroscience.

Neurolinguistics has both a larger scale and a microscopic scale:

(1) The larger scale concerns the various interconnected subsystems that make up the linguistic system as a whole — there are several of them, not just one language system. Investigation at this level aims at identifying and localizing the subsystems responsible for the different linguistic functions as well as the interconnections among these subsystems.

(2) At the microscopic level, we want to learn how linguistic information (along with other kinds of information) is represented in neural structures and their interconnections.
In the past, the field of neurolinguistics has concerned itself almost entirely just with the larger scale, the systems level. But we are now gaining the knowledge and boldness to explore the microscopic level.

At the larger scale, neurolinguistics relies heavily on evidence from aphasiology, the branch of neurology that investigates impairments in language ability resulting from damage to the brain, for example as a result of a stroke. Some patients can't speak but they can understand; others can't understand but they can speak, although their speech doesn't make much sense; and these two types of patients have damage in different parts of the left cerebral hemisphere. These are two of several types of aphasia. Aphasiology can tell us a lot about where various functions are being carried out, though its findings remain inconclusive and puzzling about the details; and they tell us very little about how linguistic information is represented in the brain nor about how it is used for speaking and speech comprehension.

We will devote attention to this classical method of investigation in neurolinguistics and will also look at other sources of evidence, including functional brain imaging. These newer techniques, increasingly popular, are providing a lot of interesting information, although they are often misleading. All of these avenues of investigation, including aphasiology, entail difficult problems of interpretation, especially since the work of any local brain area is always just a small part of a complex interactive process in which it is working in harmony with others: The brain is always doing many things at once, and even seemingly simple kinds of information tend to be highly distributed. Even a seemingly simple process like saying a short phrase requires processing in several different cortical areas, and the spread of activation spreading from one area to another is far too rapid to be detected by popular brain imaging methods.

A third major source of information is perceptual neuroscience, together with the judicious use of inferences drawn from linguistic theory. Careful examination of the relationships among units of phonology, grammar, and semantics reveals that the structure of a person's linguistic information has the form of a network, rather than, say, a collection of rules. Extrapolation of findings from perceptual neuroscience provides clues about how the linguistic information is represented in the cortex and about how it operates in speaking and in comprehending speech.


The first week will provide an introduction to the subject matter and to basic brain anatomy. There will then be three weeks devoted to aphasiology. We will then consider the newer methods of investigation and their findings.

For details, see the list of readings and the course schedule

Components of the Learning Experience


The assigned readings are in the course packet (see the list of readings). Copies of the course packet may be obtained from Rita Riley, linguistics department coordinator, in 212 Herring Hall.

The Language and Brain website, at www.rice.edu/langbrain, contains additional information that may be of interest.

Classroom Participation and Email Reaction

You are encouraged to raise questions in class, to participate actively in discussions, and to suggest alternative interpretations of findings and alternative explanations for cases and problems we will work on.

You are also encouraged to ask questions by email to the instructor at any time (lamb@rice.edu), like when the question comes up as you are reading, or in reaction to something that happened in class. At least one email for the first part of the course (before the mid-semester break) and one for the second will be expected. More than one will be welcome.


There will be several short quizzes (five or ten minutes each), not necessarily pre-announced. They will be given at the start of the class meeting. The first one, covering basic brain anatomy, will be given on Tuesday, January 19th.


There will be one exam, during the class period on Thursday, March 18th.

Term Project

Each student will select a problem to work on as a term project. It is best if this choice is made fairly early so that there will be plenty of time to think about it. These term projects constitute a very important part of the course. See the list of suggested projects. You may select something that is not on this list if you get the approval of the instructor. Every student should consult with the instructor to identify a project that suits his/her interests. Also, scheduling of oral reports (see below) will occur during these consultations. Picking a project early ensures an early choice of presentation date.

Your aim will be to bring up findings or proposals that cast new light on the exploration being undertaken in this class. In some cases you may want to criticize some of the material selected for study.

At the end of the semester you will have two opportunities to present your findings: first, an oral report to the class (optional), and second, a written report (required) of about ten to twenty pages (with wide margins, to allow for my comments). A grade of A for the term project will be available (but is not guaranteed) only to those who choose to present an oral report. The written papers will be due at the end of the exam period. As an alternative to the usual paper, you may present your report in the form of a web page or a Connexions module (or set of modules). Good reports may be added (after editing) to the language and brain web page. As a further alternative, a student with programming skills may want to do a project in Java or other web-oriented format, producing a web page, such as a simulator of network processing, for addition to the langbrain website.

Basis for Grading

Classroom participation and email reactions20%
Exam and Quizzes40%
Term Project40% (maximum course grade B+ if no oral report)

Any student with a disability requiring accommodation in this course should contact me during the first two weeks of the semester, after class or during office hours. Such students should also contact Disability Support Services in the Ley Student Center.

Home | Readings | Schedule | Class Notes
Suggested Projects | Language and Brain Website

The page last updated 11 Jan 2010.

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