Language sculpts the brain - physically. On this premise, a revolution in linguistics and neuroscience has been taking place right under our noses.
In recent years, scientists working across disciplines have found that some parts of the brain used to process communication depends on people's native language. Such discoveries are not only casting new light on language and human nature, but changing the way brain surgery is conducted.
One pioneering project headed by Tan Li-hai, an eminent neuro-linguist at the University of Hong Kong, has received a HK$47 million grant from a mainland state funding agency to study subtle differences between the brains of Chinese and non-Chinese speakers.
Brain surgeons on the mainland have already been using Professor Tan's research to protect patients' language skills during operations.
It turns out that Chinese speakers use the centre of the left middle frontal cortex to co-ordinate the use and recognition of Chinese characters. So surgeons at Beijing's Tian Tan Hospital have been trying to stay at least 10 millimeters away from that area.
In doing so, patients' ability to communicate has gone unaffected by surgery. In previous cases, when that part of the cortex was not off limits, some patients lost their language ability following brain operations.
Spoken Chinese is highly tonal, and its written scripts require visual-spatial processing. So it should not be surprising that these demand the use of brain resources different from those of phonetic languages like English.
Just 10 years ago, most researchers thought there was a universal neuro-biological basis for language processing. Indeed, many language-related brain functions and regions overlap. But by using advanced brain-imaging techniques, scientists like Tan have identified cases where they don't.
Now Tan's project, backed by the mega-grant, promises to open new vistas on the human brain.