Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 23, 1995

On Science:
Italian's Brain Damage Provide Clues to Learning Language

Emil Venere
Homewood News and Information

     A Hopkins cognitive scientist, working with Italian
researchers, has used a highly unusual case of brain damage to
find key evidence supporting a popular model of how the human
mind turns thought into language.

     If the brain-damaged man had spoken English instead of
Italian, scientists might not have made the discovery; the
findings are directly related to the fact that Italian, like a
number of other languages, assigns feminine and masculine gender
to nouns, said William Badecker, an associate research scientist
in the Department of Cognitive Science.

     The findings came after two years of research on a
24-year-old man who suffered brain damage, possibly resulting
from encephalitis.

         After two weeks in a coma, he seemed to recover
completely, speaking fluently and retaining most of his language
capacity. But he had a pronounced anomia, a condition in which
the person is unable to retrieve words.

      For example, one-third of the time he was not able to
remember the names of familiar objects when shown photographs. He
also was not able to say  anything about a word's form, such as
whether it rhymed with other words or how many syllables there
were. However, scientists were startled to discover that even
though the man seemed to know nothing about the word's form,
nearly 100 percent of the time he knew whether it was masculine
or feminine.

         A scientific paper on the work, which refers to the man
by the pseudonym Dante, will be published in the November issue
of the international journal Cognition. The research provides
important evidence for the most accepted theory of how the brain
turns thought into words.

        The mind does not simply retrieve information in one
step, like a person looking up words in a dictionary. Rather, the
brain apparently uses a complicated network of distinct modules
to transform thought into language. 

     In the Italian language, feminine words typically end in a 
(such as casa, the word for house), and masculine words typically
end in o (such as caso, the word for fate). But there are
exceptions. Problema is masculine, even though it ends in a, and
mano is feminine, even though it ends in o.

     However, regardless of whether a word fits the typical
gender pattern, Dante could identify its grammatical gender, even
though he could say nothing about what the word sounded like.

     "To me that was very exciting because it immediately brought
to mind that model, and the kinds of predictions that the model
makes about the way the language system should break down,"
Badecker said. He wrote the paper with Raffaella Zanuttini, who
is now on the faculty of linguistics at Georgetown University,
and Michele Miozzo, a graduate student at Harvard University.
Miozzo was a graduate student and Zanuttini was a postdoctoral
fellow at Hopkins when they began working with Badecker on the
research in 1990.

     Their findings provided rare insights into the mind's
linguistic system, supporting a model in which the mind turns
conceptual representations into linguistic forms in two stages,
referred to as the lemma and lexemic levels.

     When a person is shown a photograph of an animal, for
example, the brain selects a specific lemma for that particular
word, essentially retrieving a package of information about the
word, but without actually naming the word. The key point is
that, according to this model, the lemma includes the semantic
and grammatical features of the chosen word, including its
gender, if the language happens to assign gender to nouns, as
Italian does. But this package of information still has no word
form. The lemma level provides an "address" within the lexeme
network, essentially saying, "go here to get the form," and the
proper word is retrieved, Badecker said.

     The findings are different from other studies of anomia,
which have described cases where people could not remember words
even though they could access many other details about the
objects they could not name. For example, if shown a picture of a
penguin, they could not come up with the name of the animal, but
they could come up with many facts and descriptions about it.
Those examples, however, do not provide clear evidence for the
two-stage model because they fail to show that the person has
actually selected a lemma; they do not prove that the patients
have accessed grammatical information specifically related to
that word. 

     In Dante's case there is a clear breakdown somewhere between
the lemma and lexeme levels, since he is able to get access to
the grammatical gender, but he is unable to retrieve words; he
cannot get to the appropriate addresses where the specific word
forms are located, yet he knows the grammatical details.

     Therefore, the fact that Dante spoke Italian was an
essential component of the research.

     "This is what allowed us to find the evidence for the
two-stage theory," Badecker said.

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