The Language and the I-Function: Are they Mutually Exclusive?

Paul B's picture
In class we discussed how language is most easily learned during the early stages of one’s life. We resolved that this is because the I-function is not utilized. In fact, utilizing the I-function to concentrate on speaking a foreign language actually hinders oneself from becoming fluent. We established that the most effective way to learn a new language is to abandon the I-function and immerse oneself into a situation where only that specific language is spoken. This paradox has been of interest to many, and it has provoked several questions. Is learning a language mutually exclusive to the I-function? Is language itself independent of the I-funtion?

In order to decide whether language and the I-function are mutually exclusive, I need to provide a definition of the I-function. The I-function is the present stream of one’s consciousness. It is important to note that not all actions are dictated by the I-function. In fact, most behavioral circuits bypass the I-function.

For example, when one touches a hot surface, he withdraws his hands suddenly without thinking. Had the I-function been involved in that behavioral circuit, the person would have had to psychologically acknowledge that his hand was hot and then recognize that the appropriate reaction would be to move his hand. By bypassing the I-function, his reactionary behavior of withdrawing his hand immediately was much more efficient.

In exploring the phenomenon of language, one must first establish the networks or “boxes” in the nervous system that enable humans to communicate with language. The human brain is unsymmetrical, and “specialization of the left hemisphere for language in right handed people, with relatively a few exceptions, has been generally accepted for more than a century” (1). Recent studies, however, suggest that the right hemisphere may play some role in language ability. Nevertheless, the left hemisphere plays a significantly larger role in language formation and comprehension than the right one (1).

Modern observations have led to more specific localizations and identifications of language “boxes” in the brain. These primarily include the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area. In accordance with earlier hypotheses, these regions are located in the left hemisphere. When these brain regions received lesions or damage, aphasia was observed. Aphasia is the loss of the ability to utilize language. Interesting, damages to these different regions produced different aphasias, giving new insight on the specific roles of these brain regions (2).

Damage to the Broca area results in “extreme difficulty with speech and impairs reading and writing, however, comprehension remains intact” (2). This is referred to as Broca’s aphasia. Damage to the Wernicke area results in Wernicke’s aphasia, in which “patients have fluent verbal output but their speech can be unintelligible and patients have difficulty comprehending what they read or hear” (2). These observations suggest that Wernicke’s area is involved with language input while Broca’s area is involved with language output.

With input and output components, the brain seems to have established a circuit for utilizing language. Some suggests that the I-function may not be involve in the circuit: “Words can be interpreted to be like any other stimulus the brain would create a response to; touching your hand to a hot stove causes an immediate reaction to move away in a similar way that hearing the word “test” would cause an internal reaction” (2). In this example, an input of lingual information (the word “test”) results in a certain feeling without consulting the I-function.

Psychologists agree with the assertion that language is independent of the I-function. According to Dr. Bruce Charlton, it is generally accepted that consciousness of the self (or the I-funtion) is not a distinctive and defining quality of human language. Charlton explains that the tests for language ability do not involve the I-function. When a patient has a stroke, the doctor asks him to identify a pen. The patient may have difficulty pronouncing the word “pen”, but the test does not indicate any loss of ability to conjure up the word “pen” or to identify the object as a pen (3). The ability to consciously identify a pen without being able to pronounce it suggests that consciousness and language are independent functions.

One series of observations which supports the notion that the I-function and language are independent pertains to language development. It has been recognized that language is most easily learned during early development when cognition is not yet developed. During early development, neurons form and reform synapses. Between 9 months to 2 years is when this synaptic formation peaks. This is also the time when toddlers develop language abilities (4).

When studying language and its relationship with development, it is important to focus on the smallest unit of the nervous system: the neuron. The neurons make connections call synapses. The network of synapses gives rise to language. During development, certain lingual constructions develop as synapses are form. For example, children learn to use the word “went” instead of “goed”. In learning these grammatical nuances of language, neural synapses reform to create proper language. Since “speech is not broken down into individual behaviors; it is a chain of coordinated behavior that seems to maintain itself,” the I-function is not apparently involved (4).

In researching all these observations, the paradox that the I-function and language are mutually exclusive is still controversial. I both agree and disagree that one must abandon the I-function when embracing a foreign language. I agree with this notion in the sense that one must stop consciously translating one’s native language into the foreign language while speaking. However, I do not agree with the statement in the sense that the I-function must completely be abandoned. Instead, I argue that the I-function must adopt a new language.

This assertion is based on my belief that language and the I-function are not mutually exclusive. While some have deduced that the language circuit bypasses the I-function and is comprised of only the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area, I disagree. I think the fact that the two areas lay within the frontal cortex, the region known for higher order behaviors (such as the I-function, presumably), suggests that the I-function may play a role in language circuit.

Dr. Charlton’s argument, which claims that language and the I-function are mutually exclusive is not convincing to me. He explains that when a doctor asks a patient to identify a pen, only the pronunciation of the pen is affected. He then infers that this phenomenon suggests that the I-function is not involved with language.

I would argue that this test just proves that the I-function can work without language. The patient is able to use consciousness to identify the pen, but his language “box” may not be able to coordinate the pronunciation of “pen”. This observation, however, does not necessarily prove that language is independent of the I-function. Perhaps the patient still needs the I-function to recognize and coordinate the pronunciation of the object presented in front of him. This possibility is not disproved by Dr. Charlton’s observation.

Another observation, which suggests that the I-function and language are mutually exclusive pertains to language development. While some say that language develops while cognitive development is immature, I disagree. In fact, I think the fact that language develops from 9 months to 2 years is further evidence that language is dependent on the I-function. As the neurons are forming synapses during this period, language is developing as well as cognition (5). The fact that language and cognition are developed at the same time period suggests that they are dependent on one another.

I do agree, however, that certain grammatical rules of language are executed independently of the I-function. One says “went” instead of “goed” without even thinking about it. This is true for most grammer. In fact, it may be accurate to say that grammer is mutually exclusive of the I-function. However, language itself is a communicative tool of the I-function rather than an isolated circuit in the nervous system.

(1) Lee, Bora. “The Biological Foundation of Language: Does Empirical Evidence Support the innateness of Language?” Duke University Neurobiology Website:, accessed 4/1/08

(2) DeWitt, Sasha. “Colorless Green Ideas- The Phenomenon of Language.” Serendip Website:, accessed 4/2/08

(3) Charlton, Bruce. “Evolution and the cognitive neuroscience of awareness, consciousness, and language.” Psychiatry and the human condition,, accessed 4/1/08

(4) Goldstein, Andrea. “The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker: A Review” Serendip Website:, accessed 4/2/08

(5) Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). “Piaget's theory of cognitive development.” Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Website:, accessed 4/3/08


Skye Harmony's picture

Expanding on your example of "went" vs. "goed"

The stages of learning irregular forms in English are quite interesting. Children first memorize each past tense form separately, so very early language learners correctly produce the form "went" even while using the regular -ed ending correctly for other verbs. However, they then learn (not by being explicitly taught but through natural acquisition) the rule that past tense verbs end in -ed , and they begin to say "goed," even after being corrected. Finally, they learn that there are irregular forms and they revert back to the correct form "went." Perhaps this goes along with your theory that language and the I-function develop together. Maybe at around the time children start applying -ed to all verbs, they are beginning to consciously realize that language has rules (or, more generally, that the world around them can be conceptually organized), but it takes them longer to realize that those rules can have exceptions? I guess it's harder to study the I-function in children because they are not as aware of, or able to express, what they are thinking...
Paul Grobstein's picture

Language and the I-function

It is indeed interesting that it is harder than one might think to find observations that suggest any tight link between language and the I-function, and easier to find ones that suggest they are distinct, perhaps sometimes even conflicting systems. Maybe language is less central to human behavior than we sometimes think?

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