From South Korea to Germany, and back: Global excellence in language research

July 25, 2016
Five years of successful joint language research and shared curiosity in a variety of open research issues have facilitated the establishment of a partner group between the Department of Neuropsychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Daegu-Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) in the province of Daegu, South Korea. The overall goal of the group is to understand how we process language in individual sequences and to determine which role Broca’s area plays in other cognitive abilities.

Our ability to create meaningful sentences by combining words according to learned rules is a unique human trait. We are able to do this thanks to a specific region in our brain: Broca’s area, which is located in the frontal lobe of the cortex. In addition to Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area plays a fundamental role in language processing and is responsible for dealing with grammar.

But how exactly does it process something as abstract as grammar? This is one of the central issues Hyeon-Ae Jeon has been focusing on for the last five years in the Department of Neuropsychology at MPI CBS. Some time ago, under the leadership of Professor Angela D. Friederici, she found out that we process language in individual sequences—being single word groups, single words, or even single syllables. We organise these sequences unconsciously into certain hierarchies to make their content accessible. In language, a distinct part of Broca’s area, known as BA 44, is responsible for this process. The two scientists are particularly fascinated by this region.

The intriguing point is that these processes are the same regardless of which language we speak. In Korean, for instance. “We could show this universal processing of language in sequences in one of our central studies in which native German speakers were able to learn the basics of Korean within three days without having heard any Korean words before. They just had to recognize the logic behind the individual sequences and were thereby able to understand the unknown language relatively fast ”, explains Dr. Jeon, who herself was born in and grew up in South Korea, and did her PhD at Seoul National University. For several years she addressed the universal architecture of language at MPI CBS. Now she has returned to her home country and to the renowned DGIST to continue with her research—in close cooperation with Professor Friederici at Leipzig’s MPI.

In spite of, or rather because of, the successful research collaboration, the Daegu-Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology and Professor Friederici’s department are still driven by many common questions: Which role does Broca’s area, in particular BA 44, play—besides its function in processing the grammar of the mother tongue—for processing a second language? And what is its function in connection with other cognitive abilities, such as listening to music or the perception of motoric actions that are also processed in sequences?

With this partner group, there is plenty of scope for a promising collaboration between the two institutes over the next few years. Such a partner group assists excellent scientists in the early stages of their career to continue their research in their home country following a research residency at a Max Planck Institute, with financial support from the Max Planck Society.

The cooperation with South Korea offers the unique opportunity to investigate universal and cultural aspects of underlying brain processes. While basic universal processes, such as the processing of language in sequences, are independent of language and culture, the differences in brain activities could indicate cultural variables.


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