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Category: Language

Ultra-detailed brain map shows neurons that encode the meaning of words

Ultra-detailed brain map shows neurons that encode the meaning of words

Nature reports: By eavesdropping on the brains of living people, scientists have created the highest-resolution map yet of the neurons that encode the meanings of various words. The results hint that, across individuals, the brain uses the same standard categories to classify words — helping us to turn sound into sense. The study is based on words only in English. But it’s a step along the way to working out how the brain stores words in its language library, says…

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Babies in the womb exposed to two languages hear speech differently when born

Babies in the womb exposed to two languages hear speech differently when born

PsyPost reports: Researchers have shown for the first time that newborns of monolingual mothers respond differently to playback of a carefully selected sound stimulus than newborns of bilingual mothers. The findings suggest that bilingual newborns are sensitive to a wider range of acoustic variation of speech, at the cost of being less selectively tuned in to any single language. These results underscore the importance of prenatal exposure for learning about speech. It’s well established that babies in the womb hear…

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How Neanderthal language differed from modern human – they probably didn’t use metaphors

How Neanderthal language differed from modern human – they probably didn’t use metaphors

Neanderthal skull (foreground) contrasted with that of a modern human from the Palaeolithic. Petr Student By Steven Mithen, University of Reading The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) fascinate researchers and the general public alike. They remain central to debates about the nature of the genus Homo (the broad biological classification that humans and their relatives fall into). Neanderthals are also vital for understanding the uniqueness or otherwise of our species, Homo sapiens. We shared an ancestor with the Neanderthals around 600,000 years…

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Sperm whale clicks could hide a surprisingly complex ‘alphabet’

Sperm whale clicks could hide a surprisingly complex ‘alphabet’

Science Alert reports: A recent analysis of a sperm whale’s vocalizations suggests variations in ‘clicks’ represent a kind of alphabet that forms the basis of a complex communication system. Members of the conservation initiative Project CETI discovered series of clicks less than 2 seconds in length act as codas – basic units (phonemes) of cetacean speech. The highly social mammals have previously been heard identifying themselves with unique patterns of clicking, but this is the first time a combinatorial and…

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Individual neurons tune to complex speech sounds and cues

Individual neurons tune to complex speech sounds and cues

The Transmitter reports: Individual neurons in the cerebral cortex are finely tuned to the sounds of human speech—beyond just picking out consonants and vowels, two new independent studies show. The cells encode small sounds called phonemes that are said in a similar way; the order in which syllables are spoken; the beginning of sentences; vocal pitch; and word stress, among other features of speech. The studies were able to reveal this new level of detail by using Neuropixels probes, which…

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How chain-of-thought reasoning helps neural networks compute

How chain-of-thought reasoning helps neural networks compute

Ben Brubaker writes: Your grade school teacher probably didn’t show you how to add 20-digit numbers. But if you know how to add smaller numbers, all you need is paper and pencil and a bit of patience. Start with the ones place and work leftward step by step, and soon you’ll be stacking up quintillions with ease. Problems like this are easy for humans, but only if we approach them in the right way. “How we humans solve these problems…

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If we can learn to speak the language of whales, what should we say?

If we can learn to speak the language of whales, what should we say?

Ross Andersen writes: One night last winter, over drinks in downtown Los Angeles, the biologist David Gruber told me that human beings might someday talk to sperm whales. In 2020, Gruber founded Project CETI with some of the world’s leading artificial-intelligence researchers, and they have so far raised $33 million for a high-tech effort to learn the whales’ language. Gruber said that they hope to record billions of the animals’ clicking sounds with floating hydrophones, and then to decipher the…

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A new look at our linguistic roots

A new look at our linguistic roots

Kurt Kleiner writes: Almost half of all people in the world today speak an Indo-European language, one whose origins go back thousands of years to a single mother tongue. Languages as different as English, Russian, Hindustani, Latin and Sanskrit can all be traced back to this ancestral language. Over the last couple of hundred years, linguists have figured out a lot about that first Indo-European language, including many of the words it used and some of the grammatical rules that…

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Language is at the heart of indigenous community health

Language is at the heart of indigenous community health

Erica X Eisen writes: Roughly 250 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory is a place called Utopia. Composed of a loose collection of sparsely populated clan sites in the inland desert, the area is the traditional homeland of the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr peoples, roughly 500 of whom still live in Utopia today. The area wasn’t settled by white colonisers until the 1920s, when a group of German pastoralists – ‘demented by the ferocity of the heat and…

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Borges and Heisenberg converged on the slipperiness of language

Borges and Heisenberg converged on the slipperiness of language

William Egginton writes: [A]s war raged around him, and as he worked to produce (or to hinder the production of, we may never know for sure) an atomic weapon for Germany, [Werner] Heisenberg was secretly working on a philosophical book. The ‘Manuscript of 1942’ would be named not for the year it was published, which wouldn’t be until long after his death, but for the year he finished and circulated it among close friends. From that work, it would seem…

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What Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán understand about your brain

What Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán understand about your brain

Marcel Danesi writes: Why do people believe some politicians’ lies even when they have been proven false? And why do so many of the same people peddle conspiracy theories? Lying and conspiratorial thinking might seem to be two different problems, but they turn out to be related. I study political rhetoric and have tried to understand how populist politicians use language to develop a cult-like following, divide nations, create culture wars and instill hatred. This pattern goes back to antiquity…

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What’s the world’s oldest language?

What’s the world’s oldest language?

Lucy Tu writes: The globe hums with thousands of languages. But when did humans first lay out a structured system to communicate, one that was distinct to a particular area? Scientists are aware of more than 7,100 languages in use today. Nearly 40 percent of them are considered endangered, meaning they have a declining number of speakers and are at risk of dying out. Some languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, while more than half of the world’s…

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Wild parrot chicks babble like human infants

Wild parrot chicks babble like human infants

Science reports: Babies don’t babble to sound cute—they’re taking their first steps on the path to learning language. Now, a study shows parrot chicks do the same. Although the behavior has been seen in songbirds and two mammalian species, finding it in these birds is important, experts say, as they may provide the best nonhuman model for studying how we begin to learn language. The find is “exciting,” says Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Hunter College not involved with…

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Some neural networks learn language like humans

Some neural networks learn language like humans

Steve Nadis writes: How do brains learn? It’s a mystery, one that applies both to the spongy organs in our skulls and to their digital counterparts in our machines. Even though artificial neural networks (ANNs) are built from elaborate webs of artificial neurons, ostensibly mimicking the way our brains process information, we don’t know if they process input in similar ways. “There’s been a long-standing debate as to whether neural networks learn in the same way that humans do,” said…

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Your brain wires itself to match your native language

Your brain wires itself to match your native language

Science News reports: The language we learn growing up seems to leave a lasting, biological imprint on our brains. German and Arabic native speakers have different connection strengths in specific parts of the brain’s language circuit, researchers report February 19 in NeuroImage, hinting that the cognitive demands of our native languages physically shape the brain. The new study, based on nearly 100 brain scans, is one of the first in which scientists have identified these kinds of structural wiring differences…

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The ChatGPT debate: Are we intelligent enough to understand ‘intelligence’?

The ChatGPT debate: Are we intelligent enough to understand ‘intelligence’?

Gabriel A. Silva writes: In the 2016 science fiction drama Arrival about first contact with aliens, the movie’s two protagonists, a linguist and a physicist, meet in a military helicopter on their way to attempt to decipher and understand why the aliens came to earth and what they want. The physicist, Ian Donnelly, introduces himself to the linguist, Louise Banks, by quoting from a book she published: ‘Language is the cornerstone of civilization. It is the glue that holds a…

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