Talk: Language and praxis in the brain: an embodied approach to syntactic competence
Syntactic ability (that is, the capacity for productive combinatorial use of syntagmatic units) is considered by many frameworks to be the hallmark of linguistic ability in humans. Much of the neurocognitive literature in the last decades has addressed the localization and hypothesized on the computational underpinnings for syntax in the human brain (Friederici et al., 2017; Martins et al., 2019). However, within this research, syntax has often been conceptualized as (and therefore assumed to be) a separate function. This translates as assuming a specialized brain network, uniquely designed for the purpose of syntactic tasks. This theoretical framework also often implies that syntax is likely to have emerged as an exclusively human evolutionary trait, which should appear reflected in cortical specialization.
Embodied approaches in the neuroscience of language have taken a critical view at this posture (Pulvermüller & Fadiga, 2010), claiming that syntactic ability is not to be thought of as a purely independent cognitive function in the brain. Rather, data has been piling up (Iriki & Taoka, 2012; Stout & Chaminade, 2012; Roby-Brami et al., 2011) in the direction of possible shared neuronal ressources between the so-called praxic system (fine motor function planning and execution) and syntactic computations in the human brain. Moreover, within this line of hypotheses, evolutionary models have been put forward to account for the overlap in cortical localization responsible for the planning and execution for these two functions.
This talk outlines a novel research proposal within the embodied hypothesis framework, which we are currently developing at the DDL laboratory (Lyon, France) under the supervision of Alice Roy. More specifically, I take on the understudied issue of the link between motor causal schemas and causative structures in syntax, as a window to account for the apparent neural reuse observed between praxic tasks, in particular tool use, and syntactic abilities.