Language and the Mind

Course No. 1623
Professor Spencer Kelly, PhD
Colgate University
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81% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 1623
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers About the relationship between the mind and the brain
  • numbers How babies learn their native language without direct teaching
  • numbers Why neuroplasticity is our greatest survival tool
  • numbers How language is different from communication in other animals
  • numbers Why learning a new language is so hard

Course Overview

Language is the ultimate invention of Homo sapiens—one that has allowed us to change the physical and social world around us in every conceivable way, and an invention that has fundamentally changed us, as well. Research has shown that whether we’re sighted or blind, hearing or deaf, one or one hundred years old, communication through language is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.
In 24 fascinating lectures, Dr. Spencer Kelly, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Colgate University, reveals the astonishing dimensions of the human brain and cognitive development in relation to language. Did you know that language is probably not built into our brains at birth, but that we have some innate abilities that allow us to create linguistic minds—given the right environment—over the course of our lives? Or that universal aspects of language follow common developmental patterns, no matter where you are? Do you know the true extent of how radically language has transformed the human brain, and that the tools it gives us are unique to humans as a species? And, new discoveries are being made all the time. Only recently, brain-imaging studies have demonstrated that, neurally, there is very little difference between signed languages and those that are spoken. These questions and observations are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the human capacity for language and its effect on every aspect of our lives.
Language and the Mind is a fascinating journey into so many aspects of life we take for granted every day: our ability to remember the past and imagine a future, a healthy baby’s ability to learn its native language without direct teaching, our use of hand gestures and facial expressions in communication, and so much more. It’s a deep dive into the fascinating experiments that have only recently been able to tease out an understanding of language and how we learn.

Our Language-Ready Brain
Humans do not come equipped with a “language gene.” Neither is there one single gene for empathy, schizophrenia, religious faith, or any of our other complex behaviors. We do have a group of genes that are used for language, however. And while we share these same genes with many other animals, we are the only species in which they are used for language.

Despite longstanding misconceptions, we don’t have one single “language area” of the brain, either. What we do have is a brain that is language-ready at birth, with the most significant aspect of that readiness being plasticity. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change its neural connectivity over time in response to our experience and environment. If a particular neural connection produces useful behavior, that connection is strengthened. If it’s very useful, it might even sprout new connections to strengthen it further. But if a connection no longer serves a useful function, it is weakened or even eliminated. Without plasticity, there is no learning; it is the ultimate innate, general-purpose mechanism.

Neuroplasticity is also our ultimate survival mechanism. Because our physical and social environment is so complex, it wouldn’t be possible to genetically pre-program everything we need for survival. Instead, evolution has provided us with a plastic brain so we can learn those things on our own. And as you’ll discover in Language and the Mind, that learning begins on day one.


Language vs. Communication
Humans are certainly not the only animals that communicate in sophisticated ways. From the blue whale to the ant, animals communicate via vocalizations, chemical emissions, physical touch, feather displays, body positioning, jumps, stomps, dance, and more. There seems to be a limitless variety of communication methods in the animal kingdom.
But this communication about food, sex, social structure, or danger is almost always innate, with species-specific communication systems hard-wired into the brain. Even when communication patterns must be learned from parents or others in the group—e.g., non-human primates, songbirds—the functions are narrow, and the set of communication signals are fixed per species.
But humans are different. As Dr. Kelly explains with fascinating examples throughout this course, almost every aspect of human language separates us from other animals, including:

  • We can and do talk about anything and everything, not limiting ourselves to topics necessary for survival. Some animals can communicate more broadly than others, but none can remotely rival the breadth of our communication topics.
  • We are not born with language. No matter which of the over 7,000 spoken languages or hundreds of signed languages are used in their home, human babies must learn that language.
  • We are able to talk about talking, think about thinking, and learn about learning. This reflexiveness, or metacognition, separates us from every other animal in the world.
  • Human beings lie. Many other animals exhibit innate behaviors for the purpose of misleading others, but no one can lie like we do. We have the ability to know one thing and yet use language to declare that something else entirely is true.

The Big Questions
In examining language, you will learn about phonemes, syntax, semantics, and many other aspects of language, why they are important, and how they fit together with brain function to create our ability to use language. You will discover how language and the mind have emerged from a synergy of our genes, brains, bodies, and environment. You will discover that just as hearing babies living in a speech-filled environment begin to babble at about six months of age, babies who are deaf living in a signing-rich environment begin to babble in sign at about that same age.
But in addition, Dr. Kelly takes us deeper into the biggest questions about the mind, the brain, and what we perceive to be reality. Using the most recent findings from linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience research—some of which are so new they are still being debated—you will ponder the deepest questions, including:

These are just some of the compelling questions you will consider as Dr. Kelly explains the fascinating experiments that have teased out answers to some of the most basic questions about Homo sapiens. As you follow along, you may find yourself intrigued, surprised, and enthralled, all because you possess the power of language.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Language in Mind
    Explore the five components of language—pragmatics, syntax, semantics, morphology, and phonetics—and how they each contribute to the meaning of language. Learn the ways in which language is, and is not, similar to other systems in the body, and the specific reasons why learning a second language can be so challenging. x
  • 2
    Language as a System
    Explore the five components of language-pragmatics, syntax, semantics, morphology, and phonetics-and how they each contribute to the meaning of language. Learn the ways in which language is, and is not, similar to other systems in the body, and the specific reasons why learning a second language can be so challenging. x
  • 3
    Eleven Linguistic Universals
    While other animals have ways to communicate information, the universal properties of language distinguish us from all other species. Learn about the fascinating aspects of language we take for granted every day: our ability to use symbols, understand rules, generate novel utterances, speak about the past and future, and even purposefully lie. All of these universals, and more, have allowed language to become our greatest tool. x
  • 4
    Communication in the Animal Kingdom
    Could language be considered an organism whose only natural habitat is the human mind? Explore the fascinating results of our efforts to analyze and influence animal communication. What have we learned about our own relationship with language as we have studied honeybees, songbirds, vervet monkeys, chimpanzees, and dolphins? x
  • 5
    Genes, Brains, and Evolution
    While there is no single gene for language or any other complex human system, specific aspects of the human genome and our biology create the perfect biological environment for the development of language. Explore the important relationship between the brain’s Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas and the significance of the gene FOXP2. From an evolutionary point of view, could language be “a new machine built out of old parts”? x
  • 6
    How the Brain Created Language
    Did the human brain gradually evolve a specialized mental organ" designed for language? Or was language a product of cultural evolution? Take a deep dive into the fascinating arguments on both sides and examine our relationship to the human microbiome as an analogy. We aren't born with the bacteria in our microbiome, but our biology is extraordinarily receptive to them. And once combined, the relationship transforms us and our abilities-very similar to language." x
  • 7
    Gesture and the Origins of Human Language
    What did the very earliest forms of human language sound like? Chances are earliest language had less sound than you may think. Learn why many researchers believe hand gesture was actually our first attempt at language. From embodied brains to the widespread prevalence of gesture, from its human uniqueness to its many benefits for us, the evidence suggests that language was born in the body and grew up from there. x
  • 8
    Development: A Mind under Construction
    While scientists used to think of human development in terms of nature vs. nurture, it’s now commonly accepted that the human mind is the result of both, guided by the foundational process underlying all human learning—neuroplasticity. Discover the biological processes underlying how babies learn facial recognition and language, and the commonalities and differences between the two. x
  • 9
    Specializing in Speech Sounds
    Explore the brain structures of babies that give them their extraordinary auditory abilities, and why it's so difficult for adults to learn new languages. Discover how exposure to our native language actually changes our brain, removing our ability to access objective auditory information in the environment, and why we each perceive a uniquely distorted world. x
  • 10
    Navigating a World of Words
    Explore the several mechanisms babies use in the formidable task of identifying discrete words from the streams of sound in language. Look closely at their innate ability to employ the cognitive constraints of whole object assumption, mutual exclusivity bias, and taxonomic assumption. And learn why the sing-song rhythm and pitch of parental “baby talk” is exactly what babies need to hear. x
  • 11
    Learning to Play the Game of Language
    Explore many of the evolutionary features that help babies prepare for successful communication, including the social cues that help them identify specific word meanings in an almost limitless sea of options. Consider the power of pupillary contagion as it activates the brain networks involved in perspective taking and the crucial social skill known as theory of mind. x
  • 12
    Mastering the Structure of Language
    Explore the many ways in which the mind is wired from birth to see structure in language. Delve into how children utilize Bayesian learning to understand language—making predictions of meaning based on their current evidence and prior knowledge. This process, by which they update their future predictions in a never-ending loop, is the perfect innate mechanism for language acquisition—and more. x
  • 13
    The Brain as a Window into the Mind
    Learn about the three basic principles of the brain as the foundation of all human learning: neural specialization, the connectome, and the brain’s plasticity. Discover how the many developments in neuroimaging over the past 30 years—including ERP, MEG, and fMRI scans—have helped us better understand the relationships between brain mechanisms and behavior, both typical and atypical. x
  • 14
    How the Brain Comprehends Language
    Only recently have scientists had the tools to examine the neural processing of language. The results reveal a brain that has evolved to process language as a survival mechanism. Learn about the brain's dual-stream pathways and their benefits, the very latest research revealing that words activate practically every square inch of the brain's surface, and the details that are still being debated today. x
  • 15
    How the Brain Produces Language
    Explore the latest scientific research and theories related to the brain’s ability to produce speech—one of the most complex of all human activities requiring the coordination of an estimated 100 muscles in the lungs, throat, jaw, tongue, and face. And learn why we need to hear our own speech in order to successfully produce it, even as adults. x
  • 16
    Dancing Brains: The Social Side of Language
    See why language truly is an example of emergentism, and why language production cannot fully be understood without considering how human brains connect to each other. Then, probe the fascinating workings of the mirror neuron system, neural synchrony, and the significance of the N400 response, as you discover why face-to-face interactions are so crucial for optimal communication. x
  • 17
    How Writing Transformed the Mind
    Investigate how the plasticity of the brain allows us to “cobble together” a neural network for reading and writing as we mature, using dyslexia and synesthesia to illustrate this networking property. This network develops at different times for different people, but no one is born with it; our “reading brain” is truly a technological transformation. x
  • 18
    Sign Language: Language in Our Hands
    By exploring a version of language that operates in a different modality than speech, you'll develop a wider and deeper appreciation of what language actually is. You'll unveil many myths about sign language, as you learn about its fascinating development and linguistic components. Our relatively recent understanding of neural mechanisms reveals that language is language, regardless of modality. x
  • 19
    Embodied Language: Mind in Body–Body in Mind
    Witness how the arbitrary and abstract elements of language interact with the iconic and concrete expressions of the body. Remembering that language originally evolved within a face-to-face context, the revelation of recent studies is not surprising: The body influences all parts of language and we use the whole body to take meaning from what we hear. x
  • 20
    The Multilingual Mind
    What happens in the brain when we learn a language in addition to our native tongue? That depends on when that additional language is learned and its modality relative to the native language—i.e., are both languages speech, or is one sign? Discover the fascinating experiments that have revealed the brain’s “bilingual language control” function and the many ways in which it can go awry. x
  • 21
    Does Language Shape Thought?
    Since English speakers have relatively few words for snow, is it impossible for us to experience snow in all its forms? If an African tribe has fewer color names than English, is their vision different than ours? Does language influence our perception or does our perception influence language—or, could it work both ways? Investigate the fascinating arguments on all sides of this still-ongoing debate about language. x
  • 22
    Does Culture Shape Language?
    Journey through a series of fascinating experiments developed to determine whether or not language can influence thought independent of culture. Perhaps not unexpectedly—and working with individuals from preverbal infants to adults—these experiments reveal that language and culture both influence thought, often working in tandem. x
  • 23
    The Benefits of Bilingualism
    What are the potential by-products of speaking multiple languages? Learn what relatively recent research has shown about the ways in which having multiple languages opens up different emotional, cognitive, and social worlds, and how the mind travels back and forth between them. And consider the controversial claim that becoming a bilinguist can actually improve your cognitive reserve. x
  • 24
    How Language Makes Us Human
    Language is the ultimate tool humans use when we extend our minds beyond the here and now, and beyond what we have previously known. Learn how language has allowed humans to develop math, build a capacity for logic, categorize the world around us, develop the concept of metaphor, and construct narratives. While we take each of these functions for granted every day because they feel so natural, none would have been possible without language. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

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Course Guidebook Details:
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  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Spencer Kelly

About Your Professor

Spencer Kelly, PhD
Colgate University
Spencer Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience as well as a co-director of the Center for Language and Brain at Colgate University. He earned his PhD and MA in Developmental Psychology from the University of Chicago, and he received his BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis. He also completed a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in developmental neuroscience at the University of Louisville....
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Language and the Mind is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 16.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deserves many more stars So useful and so well done. Years ago I studied psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics extensively, but gradually fell farther and farther behind. I found this to be an amazing update for me personally. Selection of topics is excellent for an introductory survey. (Just need a bit more about speech production such as Levelt, et all, Slobin, Postma...) Presentation superb.
Date published: 2020-10-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fast-moving, sometimes difficult to follow This course was a little different than I was expecting. I was expecting more along the lines of lectures 21 - 24 and those were the lectures I followed the best and found most interesting. The course is very broad in coverage and fast moving. Some of the material is theoretical and hard to verify, especially reach-back to how language may have developed before writing about 3400 BCE. On the other hand, a number of interesting experimental results are cited to support various theories of language development. The professor is clear on where there is scientific consensus about language development and where there is much ongoing debate. I found my attention wandering more than in other Great Courses I have viewed. I believe this is mostly because the material is not in my wheelhouse which is more in the areas of physics, philosophy, ancient history, ancient writing, and economics. I have dabbled in brain sciences, but don't seem to have enough exposure to that field to retain enough information to easily follow the brain science part of this course. Before taking this course, I would take a good look at one's own subject area background and whether the broad nature and fast-moving nature of the course is right for you or not.
Date published: 2020-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredible Content! What a pleasure it has been to listen to Prof. Kelly's set. He's done incredible work in his field and shares many of his discoveries with us here. As a professor of linguistics myself, I've found in his enthusiastic lectures further motivation for my own teaching and research. Thanks, dear colleague, for giving us a wonderfully written and researched Great Courses set!
Date published: 2020-08-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Content is interesting but delivery is dull Been through only four lessons to date. So far the content is interesting, but delivery is deadly dull. Just a professor sitting in front of the camera talking. Almost no production value to the presentation. I think I'd rather see him pacing in front of a classroom giving a traditional lecture than using this boring delivery method. On the plus side, the prof knows his stuff and I find it rather interesting.
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Title is good descriptor. I have been a customer of Great Courses for many years and this was on of the best courses I've purchased. The professor was articulate and very well versed in his field. He has the ability to be able to present complex issues in a way that someone like me who is not an expert can understand. There is a lot to ponder as one moves from narrow research findings to larger interpretation and meaning..
Date published: 2020-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from a great course for any language teacher I finished 24 lessons in 2 days and couldn't wait for the free guidebook to arrive. I printed it out and read every word one more time. As a language teacher, teaching Mandarin as a foreign language for TK-5th grade, I can't wait to revise and update my teaching materials and tools.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good. A few details might have been more accurate with more peer review. (Example, description of Kuhl's experiment on social gating of babies learning of phonetic distinctions). That said, the instructor showed wide-ranging knowledge and his enthusiasm made the course engaging. Good balance of topics. I have considerable background in psycholinguistics, and so I cannot judge how understandable it would be for a beginner, but I expect that such a person would enjoy it and learn a lot.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Theories of Knowledge The subject is very specialized and seemed designed for someone with more experience in the field or someone studying that subject. It clearly needed to be supported by the course book. The lectures were very dense with a great deal of information to absorb. Graphics were greatly appreciated. I wouldn't recommend this for a novice level.
Date published: 2020-06-04
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