Comprehending language thus entails a number of different kinds of brain processes, including perceptual analysis, attention allocation, retrieval of information from long-term memory, storage of information in working memory, and comparisons between/transformations of information contained in working memory. These processes take place at multiple levels for different types of information (orthographic/phonological word form information, morphological/syntactic information, conceptual/semantic information) and unfold with different time courses; they are thus reflected in different electrophysiological processes with different time-courses, mediated by different brain areas.

Understanding language processing, therefore, demands that we apprehend how the multiple subprocesses involved interact over time and space. This, in turn, compels us to appreciate how the brain's processing of language interacts with more general processing demands. For example, both N400 and P600 amplitudes are responsive to attentional manipulations. The N400, for instance, is not observed when the priming context is masked (Brown and Hagoort, 1993), and N400 effects in word pair tasks are larger when the prime target interval is short and the proportion of related word pairs is high (Chwilla et al, 1995; Holcomb, 1988). Similarly, the P600 to verb inflection errors is greatly attenuated if not absent when people are asked to scan sentences merely to determine whether a word in a sentence is printed in upper case (Gunter and Friederici, 1999). Orthographic, phonological, morphological, syntactic, and pragmatic priming and context ERP effects seem to overlap temporally between 200 and 400 msec. Various and sundry memory-related and some attention-related ERP effects are observed in this very same interval. Moreover, the transient ERPs elicited during the analysis of a visual stimulus as a word are superimposed on the slower potentials that seem to be elicited during the processing of sentences and during various tasks requiring that information be retrieved from longer term memory. Indeed, the language specificity of any of these processes remains unknown to date.

What we do know is that language processing is a complex skill engaging the whole brain. The goal of electrophysiologi-cal investigations of language, as well as the goal of research exploring language processing with other tools, is to fashion an understanding of how the various processes involved in language comprehension and production are coordinated to yield the message-level apprehension we attain from reading or listening to speech. Linguists, psycholinguists, and neurolin-guists alike strive to understand how the brain "sees" language—because, in turn, language is such an important facet of how humans "see" their world.


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