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Language Communication and Comprehension

Language communication and comprehension, from neurobiological, evolutionary, social, cultural, forensic, and philosopical perspectives


The science of language communication and comprehension is a rapidly expanding and multi-disciplinary field, which seeks to answer the following key questions:

  • Why did language evolve? How does human cognition, mediated to a large part through language, compare with that of other animals?
  • What is happening in the brain when we produce and process language?
  • How is language used in human interaction? How do the activities of the brain generate and respond to social interactions through language?
  • How do we use what we know of the world, and of the speaker, to resolve the ambiguity that pervades natural language? 

This is a time of significant progress in our understanding of human language and communication, thanks to the technological advances in brain-imaging, and in computational methods that capture the statistical and formal A view of the left hemisphere of the brain showing areas involved in spoken language comprehension (Matt Davis)properties of human linguistic systems. Evidence from behavioural studies, and from increasingly sophisticated brain-imaging techniques (fMRI, EEG, MEG) is increasing researchers’ understanding of the neural processes which support spoken and written language, enabling them to track the activity of the brain during language comprehension and production with millimetre and millisecond precision. This research has already provided unique insights into the anatomical and functional organization of the brain systems for language comprehension. 

Developments within cognitive sciences go hand-in-hand with theoretical accounts of language and communication. New approaches to natural language semantics provide the theoretical foundations for empirical investigations into questions such as ambiguity and the under-specification of meaning, the role of context, and human perception of space and time.

Language Communication and Comprehension is a cross-disciplinary research theme which links psycholinguists, neuroscientists, evolutionary anthropologists, theoretical linguists and philosophers of language at the University of Cambridge, and seeks to advance knowledge by bringing together cutting-edge theories of natural language and linguistic communication with the latest advances in experimental research.


Research groups at Cambridge

  • The Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies explores the role language has played in the evolution of the human species.
  • The Neurolex Group within the Department of Psychology studies the neuro-cognitive foundations of the human language function.
  • Researchers in the Hearing and Language group at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit use functional brain imaging to detect ‘hidden’ comprehension and show the cascade of neural processes that achieve rapid and efficient recognition of spoken words, in both healthy individuals and those with hearing impairment.
  • At the Centre for Speech, Language and Brain in the Department of Psychology, interdisciplinary research using behavioural and neuroimaging methods has provided new insights into speech comprehension and semantic processing, both with healthy and brain-damaged individuals. This work seeks to explain both the success and failure of language processing in ageing and injured brains.
  • Research in the Centre for Neuroscience and Education explores the cognitive and neural basis of development deficits in spoken and written language (e.g. dyslexia) with the goal of earlier detection and more effective remediation of conditions that have such a devastating effect on educational achievement and life opportunity.
  • Phoneticists and phonologists in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics have made important contributions to our understanding of prosodic and forensic characteristics of spoken language. Through collaborations with experimental psychologists, developmental researchers and neuroscientists they are also investigating how these signals are comprehended both through behavioural methods and brain imaging investigations.
  • Linguistic communication is studied from the perspectives of theoretical pragmatics, experimental pragmatics, and philosophy of language in the Semantics/Pragmatics Research Cluster at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics.


Dr. Matt Davis, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

Professor William Marslen-Wilson, Department of Psychology

Professor Kasia M. Jaszczolt, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Professor Robert Foley, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies


Turn-taking, language processing and the evolution of language

Guest lecture by Prof. Stephen Levinson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen (Language Sciences Symposium, Nov 2015)



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