Question transversale "Language and Action: an integrated system?"

Question transversale “Language and Action: an integrated system?”

Proposer: Adrien Meguerditchian

Do language and action share the same integrated system? Does Speech have a gestural origin? Could motor tasks help recovering from some language impairments?

There are considerable reports of tight links between language and the motor system from both behavioral and neuroscience research. Evidence was documented from investigation on  rhythm, hand writing, sensorimotor interactions, fine thumb-index grasping, tool use and manufacture, praxis and oro-facial motor impairment as well as gestural communication not only in humans (i.e., co-speech gestures, deictic referential pointing, preverbal gesture in infants, sign language, etc.) but also in our closest primate relatives and domesticated dogs (referential and intentional limb communication). Thus, it is likely that both perception and production of action either interact, interfere or overlap with some language functions and language acquisition. Beyond the diversity of the disciplines in our respective labs, such a question raises a common interest within our scientific community regarding its potential theoretical and clinical implications on language mechanisms, its development and its phylogenetical origins. The ILCB opens a unique opportunity to share our complementary expertise on this multidisciplinary question at the crossroad of psychology, neuroscience, language science, cognitive science and primatology. With the creation of this research group and organizations of workshops, we wish to review our knowledge on this question and to develop great scientific perspective by promoting fruitful collaborations at the ILCB.

At the ILCB Porquerolles workshop, we will propose to discuss and debate about the links between the language and the motor system through 3 main sub-questions:

  • Do speech and linguistic-semantic representations draw on procedural knowledge and sensory-motor experience?
  • What are the motor control convergences between speech, intentional communication, manual and orofacial dexterity?
  • Are rhythm and temporal prediction a good model to study the links between language and the motor system?


Students                                             Professionnel :

Alexia Fasola (INS)                              Véronique Sabadell (Orthophoniste, INS)

Céline Hidalgo (INS)

Sarah Palmis (LNC)


Mireille Bonnard (INS)

Thierry Chaminade (INT)

Jeremy Danna (LNC)

Florence Gaunet (LPC) & Thierry Legou (LPL)

Marianne Jover (Centre PsyCLE)

Marieke Longcamp (LNC)

Adrien Meguerditchian (LPC)

Marie Montant (LPC)

Benjamin Morillon (INS)

Caterina Petrone (LPL)

Serge Pinto (LPL)

Marc Sato (LPL)

Daniele Schon (INS)

Marion Tellier (LPL)

Agnès Trébuchon (INS)

Question 1. Do speech and linguistic-semantic representations draw on procedural knowledge and sensory-motor experience?

Animated by Marie Montant (LPC) & Marc Sato (LPL)

The extent to which speech and language, as well as other cognitive processes, are grounded in sensory-motor representations (i.e., embodied) has been debated for centuries, often as part of a more general discussion of the relation between mind and body. Recently, cognitive neuroscience has been built on deconstructing the mind-body dualism. An important practical problem for dualism arose with the Piagetian notion that knowledge is acquired through sensory and motor experiences, and over the past decade, the issue of cognitive and language embodiment has resurfaced again and has led to heated debates. In cognitive neuroscience, this resurgence of interest is largely due to the discovery of “mirror neurons” in the macaque ventral premotor cortex. This major breakthrough was quickly followed by attempts to identify regions with analogous properties in the human brain, and with some caveats, the data support the existence of such a “perception-action matching system”.

Regarding speech, although a functional distinction between frontal motor sites for speech production and temporal auditory sites for speech perception has long been postulated, recent neurobiological models of speech perception and/or production rather argue for a functional coupling between sensory and motor systems. During speech production, modulation of neural responses observed within the auditory and somatosensory cortices are thought to reflect feedback control mechanisms in which sensory consequences of the speech-motor act are evaluated with actual sensory input in order to further control production. Conversely, motor system activity observed during speech perception has been proposed to partly constrain phonetic interpretation of the sensory inputs through the internal generation of candidate articulatory categorizations.

Although there is no doubt that perceptual and motor representations are connected in the human brain, the question of a “common language of perception and action”, shaping speech communication and human language, is still hardly debated, in particular because it does not fit to the classical modular view according to which, language understanding relies on symbolic, amodal mental representations and meaning derives from an arbitrary associations between abstract symbols and their corresponding extensions in the world .

In the frame of this transversal axis, we would like to discuss new ways of approaching the question of the motor and perceptual grounding of language and speech, from a developmental and evolutionary perspective, using the unique inter-disciplinary expertises and technical facilities offered by the ILCB community.

Question 2 : What are the motor control convergences between speech, intentional communication, manual and orofacial dexterity?

Animated by Serge Pinto (LPL), Florence Gaunet, & Adrien Meguerditchian (LPC)

Homo sapiens montre une flexibilité vocale et une dextérité manuelle qui ne se retrouvent pas chez les autres primates anthropoïdes (grands singes). Cette flexibilité est probablement permise par un contrôle moteur singulier impliquant un circuit nerveux à une seule synapse vers les motoneurones qui contrôlent les effecteurs impliqués dans le geste manuel et dans le geste vocal (4, 5). Or le débat reste ouvert en primatologie quant à la nature intentionnelle ou émotionnelle des vocalisations des primates non-humains, c’est-à-dire au contrôle que ces animaux peuvent ou ne peuvent pas exercer sur leur appareil phonatoire. Ceci est à mettre en perspective avec les chiens qui peuvent apprendre à produire de sons qui ne font pas parti de leur répertoire vocal, i.e. les sons humains. Dès lors on peut s’interroger sur les facteurs motivationnels/sociaux impliqués dans la communication vocale et son contrôle.

Cette question a pour objectif de discuter l’origine du contrôle moteur de la voix et de la main dans une perspective évolutive, en croisant l’apport des études comportementales, neurobiologiques et pathologiques.

Question 3. Are rhythm and temporal prediction a good model to study the links between language and the motor system ?

Animated by Daniele Schön, Benjamin Morillon (INS) & Caterina Petrone (LPL)

Speech is intrinsically temporal. The temporal structure of speech is predictable, to a certain extent, and can be as such considered as quasi-rhythmic. The rhythmic patterns, conveyed by the speech amplitude envelope contain major markers for the phonetic, segmental and suprasegmental levels of analysis, as well as for conversational interactions (Giraud and Poeppel, 2012).

During turn-taking, conversational partners have to agree on who speaks next and when, with tight timing of turn-taking transitions (Stivers 2009). This requires that speakers start planning their utterances already when listening to their interlocutors (Bögels et al., 2015). It has been argued that smoothness of turn-taking transitions might be guided by speech rhythm (e.g., Benuš et al., 2011). That is, speakers would be sensitive to the rhythmic properties (in terms of, e.g., isochrony of intervals between pitch accents) of their co-speaker’s speech, with such rhythmic properties informing turn-taking behavior. This would also play an important role in the emergence of communication in infants (Condon & Sanders, 1974).

The human auditory cortex shows at rest a sustained oscillatory activity, visible across several frequency bands. When the auditory cortex is stimulated with speech, the activity at rest changes into a more temporally structured activity (REF). The neuronal profile is remarkably similar to the spectr-temporal structure of speech envelope. Thus, speech reorganizes the oscillatory activity, and this is particularly evident in the spectral domains corresponding to the optimal sampling for syllable and phonemes, though similar coupling seems to take place for syntaxe (Ding et al., 2016).

The motor system seems to play an important role in the modulation of the auditory system, allowing an improved temporal prediction (Morillon et al., 2014). This becomes particularly true in rhythmic context, insofar as rhythm perception (intrinsically predictable) heavily relies on the cortical and subcortical motor network.

Interestingly, several studies have shown a facilitatory effect of rhythmic stimulation at different time-scales on both speech comprehension and production (speaking and writing), at the phonological, syntactic and interactional levels (Schön and Tillmann, 2015). This reinforces the use of rhythm going beyond motor rehabilitation (eg in Parkinson patients) into language rehabilitation programs (Stahl et al., 2011).

Finally, in other species, rhythmic behaviours is very limited to some animal that also show vocal learning (cockatoo, sea lion) and are quasi absent in the primate world (Patel, 2014). This raises the issue of the relevance of entrainment phenomena and temporal prediction to the development of language.


Benuš, Štefan, Agustín Gravano, & Julia Hirschberg. 2011. Pragmatic aspects of temporal accommodation in turn-taking. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 3001–3027.

Bögels S., Magyari L., Levinson S. C. (2015c). Neural signatures of response planning occur midway through an incoming question in conversation. Sci. Rep. 5, 1–11. 10.1038/srep1288

Condon, W. S., & Sander, L. W. (1974). Neonate movement is synchronized with adult speech: Interactional participation and language acquisition. Science, 183(4120), 99-101.

Ding, N., Melloni, L., Zhang, H., Tian, X., & Poeppel, D. (2016). Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech. Nature neuroscience, 19(1), 158-164.

Giraud, A. L., & Poeppel, D. (2012). Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations. Nature neuroscience, 15(4), 511-517.

Morillon, B., Schroeder, C. E., & Wyart, V. (2014). Motor contributions to the temporal precision of auditory attention. Nature communications, 5.

Patel, A. D. (2014). The evolutionary biology of musical rhythm: was Darwin wrong?. PLoS Biol, 12(3), e1001821.

Peelle JE and Davis MH (2012). Neural oscillations carry speech rhythm through to comprehension,  Front. Psychol., 3.

Schön, D., & Tillmann, B. (2015). Short‐and long‐term rhythmic interventions: perspectives for language rehabilitation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337(1), 32-39.

Stahl, B., Kotz, S. A., Henseler, I., Turner, R., & Geyer, S. (2011). Rhythm in disguise: why singing may not hold the key to recovery from aphasia. Brain, awr240.

Stivers, T., Enfield, N. J., Brown, P., Englert, C., Hayashi, M., Heinemann, T., Hoymann, G., Rossano, F., de Ruiter, J., Yoon, K-En.,Levinson, S. C. (2009). Universal and cultural variation in turn-taking conversation. PNAS, 106(26), 10587-10592