Early language exposure affects neural mechanisms of semantic representations

Elife. 2023 May 10:12:e81681. doi: 10.7554/eLife.81681.


One signature of the human brain is its ability to derive knowledge from language inputs, in addition to nonlinguistic sensory channels such as vision and touch. How does human language experience modulate the mechanism by which semantic knowledge is stored in the human brain? We investigated this question using a unique human model with varying amounts and qualities of early language exposure: early deaf adults who were born to hearing parents and had reduced early exposure and delayed acquisition of any natural human language (speech or sign), with early deaf adults who acquired sign language from birth as the control group that matches on nonlinguistic sensory experiences. Neural responses in a semantic judgment task with 90 written words that were familiar to both groups were measured using fMRI. The deaf group with reduced early language exposure, compared with the deaf control group, showed reduced semantic sensitivity, in both multivariate pattern (semantic structure encoding) and univariate (abstractness effect) analyses, in the left dorsal anterior temporal lobe (dATL). These results provide positive, causal evidence that language experience drives the neural semantic representation in the dATL, highlighting the roles of language in forming human neural semantic structures beyond nonverbal sensory experiences.

Keywords: dorsal anterior temporal lobe; fMRI; human; knowledge; language; neuroscience; semantics.

Plain language summary

Humans are the only known species where much of knowledge learning happens symbolically through language, in addition to information received directly from the senses. For example, humans can learn about the color of some rose flowers from the popular expression “roses are red” without needing to see any red roses – allowing them to accumulate knowledge beyond the constraints of their own senses. Recent work suggests that a region of the brain known as the dorsal anterior temporal lobe represents knowledge acquired from language instead of sensory experiences. However, these studies were based on volunteers deprived of sensory experiences rather than those with reduced language exposure. Therefore, it was not clear whether this brain structure represents knowledge derived specifically from language and the importance of language in shaping non-sensory knowledge. To address this question, Wang et al. studied the brain activity of deaf adult volunteers in a word meaning judgement task. Volunteers were either born deaf or lost their hearing as toddlers, and all primarily used Chinese Sign Language for communication. One group of volunteers had been exposed to sign language from birth, giving them similar exposure to language as hearing individuals. The other group had less exposure to language in their early years and only learned sign language later in childhood. The task included 90 written words that were familiar to the volunteers. They included a mixture of object words – related to material objects – such as “shoulder” and “hammer” and abstract words – which are not linked to physical objects – such as “cause” and “violence”. The volunteers were shown each word in turn and asked to think about the word’s meaning. Brain scans revealed that the left dorsal anterior temporal lobes of the volunteers with reduced early language exposure were less sensitive to the meaning of the words compared with those of the other volunteers. The findings demonstrate that the dorsal anterior temporal lobe specifically supports meaning derived from a person’s experience of language as opposed to sensory experience, providing a new angle to understand the mechanism of knowledge representations. Increased understanding of how language supports knowledge will help to uncover the human-specific ways of representing and creating knowledge in the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Semantics*
  • Sign Language
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology

Grants and funding

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.