Contribution of right hemisphere to language


The Important Contribution of the Right Hemisphere to Language

Cheimonidou Panagiota



Does the right hemisphere of the brain have any contribution to linguistic function? The argument of this research paper is that it does. Language is not lateralized only to the left hemisphere of the brain. Although this thesis is challenged, it can be proved by the fact that damage to it can cause language impairment, affect our understanding of the context of speech (oral and written), disable our comprehension of linguistic prosodic features. Moreover, supporting evidence substitutes the fact that linguistic function can completely switch itself to the right hemisphere of the brain, when the left one is damaged. This is only part of the argumentation that could be made to support the important role of the right side of the brain. Still, it proves adequately that language has to do with both sides of the brain, and that the right one should not be overlooked.

The Important Contribution of the Right Hemisphere to Language

The point of this study is to discuss the important contribution of the right cerebral hemisphere to language. It will be very interesting to support this view with evidence, since many arguments have been made against it, stating that language locates itself only on the left side of the brain and the right hemisphere has nothing to do with it. In order to highlight the importance of the right side of the brain for language, the structure of this research is based on facts (mostly on what follows right hemisphere damage) and on previous work in the field (e.g. , Field, 2003; Beeman & Chiarello, 1998; Cook, 1984).

To begin with, before starting talking about the important role of the right hemisphere to language, I believe I should first be more specific about the term “lateralization”. “Brain” or “cerebral lateralization” focuses on the fact that our brain is divided in half: the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. As most of us know, our brain is such uniquely complex that it is hard to know all its specific functions with every little detail; but what we do know for sure is that our brain is so efficient that does the remarkable job of carving out specialties, dividing tasks: The left side of the brain specializes in one set of tasks, while the right side specializes in another. On a broad level, we can say that the left hemisphere deals with linear, structured, analytical, rational, logical and sequential tasks, while the right hemisphere focuses on big-picture thinking, on tasks that are about the whole, the context of a situation rather than the explicit detailed text, about holistic way of perception, dealing with things all at once, visualizing, synthesizing and not analyzing. So, lateralization deals with the two sides of the brain and the distinct functions that are allocated to each one of them.

The interesting part in lateralization, is attempting to track in what way the two sides of the brain contribute to language. Indeed, this is a controversial issue that has long been under debate and is questioned until now. The long-held view is that linguistic function has to do only with the left side of the brain and nothing to do with the right one. Luckily, over the course of the years, this view is questioned. Many linguists and scientists have carried out important research which shows that the right hemisphere of the brain should not be overlooked in terms of language. One of them, Mark Beeman (1998), argues that “the right hemisphere (RH) processes language” (p. ix) and admits that this view still causes intense discussions which often conclude to the argument that the right hemisphere has only “paralinguistic” function (p. ix). The same view is shared by Terrence Deakon (1997) who says that “[t]he right side of the brain is not the non-language hemisphere. It is critically and intimately involved in language processing at many levels during both development and maturity” (154). Holding the same view, I believe that the linguistic function is not completely gathered in the left hemisphere. The left side of the brain may play an important role for language- perhaps the most important- but it is not sufficient without the right side. It is like a puzzle with some pieces missing. The importance of the right hemisphere is further discussed below.

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Perhaps one of the most convincing and strong arguments in favor of the significant contribution of the right hemisphere to language, is that it affects the understanding of stories and jokes. This conclusion came from the fact that patients who had their right side of the brain damaged, experienced the same symptom:  basically they could not comprehend the context of a narrative or a joke. Diana S. Woodruff- Pak (1997) says that people with their right prefrontal lobe damaged, usually cannot make successful jokes and puns or tell meaningful stories (147). Dennis Coon and John O. Mitterer (2007), based also on results of patients with their right side of the brain damaged, prove that these people fail to understand the overall context of what is said and therefore can no longer comprehend other nuances of language, namely jokes, irony, sarcasm, implications. The same symptom is highlighted by Terrence Deakon (1997) who argues that right hemisphere damage results in failure to “grasp the logic of the whole” (164). Norman D. Cook (1984) also argues that “[t]he understanding of short stories requires one to grasp […] the consistency, overall coherence and sequence of events” (32), but when right hemisphere damage takes place, these abilities are lost and “the coherence of verbal output is degraded, leading to unwitting humor, paramnesias and an inability to carry a train of thought to its logical conclusion” (32). All the above converge to the fact that basically the right hemisphere helps us realize the overall context of language, without which the complete meaning of language cannot be transferred. Therefore, a person with right hemisphere damage will not be able to realize the complete components of a story (for example if part of the story is missing), or appreciate a joke, since s/he takes everything literally and misses the bigger picture.

In relation to the connection between the right hemisphere and story and joke comprehension, there could also be made an interesting combination with autism. It has been proved that right hemisphere lesion can result in autism. Cecil R. Reynolds and Elaine Fletcher- Janzen (2009), talked about the finding that “individuals with autism had a left ear preference for dichotic listening for both verbal and musical stimuli” (p.775). Having in mind that the left hemisphere controls the right part of the body while the right hemisphere controls the left, we can realize that, here, it is the right hemisphere that has to do with verbal stimuli, with speech. So, it is not just the left part of the brain that has to do with language impairment. But what has this to do with the understanding of stories and jokes? Well, Ozonoff and Miler (as cited in Field, 2003) proving with their experiments that patients with autism and right-hemisphere patients have symptoms in common, said that these people found it hard to understand the correct ending of a joke and that “both groups might have similar problems in cognitive flexibility” (775). Concerning story comprehension they moved on saying that these people face difficulties when it comes to understand details of a short story by using context and meaning (775). This again shows how damage to the right side of the brain causes loss of the ability to understand the overall context of language, and also underlines the importance of the right hemisphere since it proves that lesions to it can result in language impairment.

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Moving on to another reason why the right hemisphere of the brain plays an important role for language, we should consider its relation to the prosodic parts of language. Merely understanding the meaning of words and the syntax of sentences does not lead to adequate mastering of language. Language as a whole, consists of prosodic and gesture features too, and this is what the right hemisphere is responsible for. Kolb and Whishaw’s statements (as cited in Woodruff-Pak, 1997) were very interesting, since they were the first to conclude that “the frontal lobes and the right hemisphere appear more involved in the mediation of emotion than the left hemisphere” (147). When we hear someone speaking, we must be able to understand the tone of his voice, the pitch of his speech. Without this ability, we would not be able to interpret the meaning and intentions of the speaker. Indeed, when the right hemisphere is damaged, people lose this ability. Danny D. Steinberg (1993) illustrates that these people “seem to have difficulties in processing speech as a prosodic syntactic distinction” (249), while Dennis L. Molfese and Sidney J. Segalowitz (1988) similarly say that these people find it hard to express and understand the prosodic feature of language ( namely the emotional tone and the pitch alterations of speech)(484). What is also interesting is the fact that apart from the disability to understand a speaker’s tone, emotion and pitch, a person with RH damage will also be unable to understand the other people’s reactions to his own speech. As Molfese and Segalowitz (1988) say, such a person will “have difficulty comprehending others’ emotional reaction to his or her behavior”, and also his/her speech will be “monotonous and lack emotional changes in pitch and tone” (484). Consequently, these studies prove that language would not be conveyed sufficiently without the right side of the brain.

Furthermore and most importantly, I want to talk about another phenomenon which I believe gives convincing evidence for the active role that the right hemisphere plays in linguistic functions: the ability of the right hemisphere to take over language function when the left hemisphere is damaged. As Steinberg and Sciarini (1993) point out, “the right hemisphere has some language functions and can take over the complete language functioning of the left hemisphere when that hemisphere has been surgically removed or damaged” (249). This phenomenon is usually observed at an early age. It refers to the “equipotentiality” theory about which Bruce E. Murdoch (2010) states that it is the analogous capacity of the two cerebral hemispheres “to subserve language functions subsequent to unilateral brain damage, so that a shift from language competency from one hemisphere to the other is easily accomplished at a young age” (162). This “young age” is referred to as “infancy” by Lenneberg (as cited by Field, 2003) who states that if necessary, language can place itself on the right side of the brain due to the flexible relationship which exists between the two hemispheres. But although most cases- where language can develop as well in the right as in the left hemisphere- take place at a young age, we have not reached to a certain conclusion. Until now, there is no evidence that the brain stops to be flexible at an older state. For instance, there was the case of a woman above 50 years old, who suffered  left hemisphere damage and managed to recover until a stroke damaged her right side of the brain, too. Either the case, the point is that the right hemisphere of the brain has the ability to replace the linguistic function of the left hemisphere.

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The important contribution of the right hemisphere to language is an issue that surely can be further discussed, since research is carried out every day in order to reach a more solid view of what is happening in our brain. Nonetheless, I believe that all the cases mentioned above, give pretty clear evidence that the right side of the brain is not merely a silent viewer in terms of language. It plays an active role since we saw how it a) affects our understanding of the overall linguistic context, b) damage to it can cause inability to understand the prosodic features of language or even result in language impairment, c) lateralization can be switched in order to adapt to loss or damage. As far as language is concerned, the significance of the right side of the brain should not be overlooked, and we should understand that left hemisphere alone could not be sufficient in appropriate language production.


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