A 3D view of a person's cerebral cortex.

A 3D view of a person’s cerebral cortex.

The color of each voxel indicates which category of words it is selective for. for example, green ones are mostly selective for visual and tactile concepts, while red voxels are mostly social ones.

Each day, as we talk to friends, family, and coworkers, and consume podcasts, movies, and other media, we are ceaselessly bombarded by the spoken word. Yet somehow, our brains are able to piece out the meaning of these words, allowing us to seamlessly, in most cases, go about our days, understanding, remembering, and responding when necessary.

But what’s going on in our brains that allows us to understand this endless stream? A group of scientists set out to map how the brain represents the meaning of spoken language, word by word. Their results, published today in the journal Nature, not only represent a first-of-its-kind directory or ‘semantic atlas’ to display how the meaning of language is grouped in the brain, but also shows that we use a broad range of regions in the brain, challenging the belief that language is limited to a few brain areas and involving only the left hemisphere.

Word meaning, also known as semantics, focuses on the relationship between words and phrases and what they mean, their connotation. Words likepurchase, sale, item, store, card, and package, for example, all have something in common — you go to a store to purchase an item using your debit card. To understand semantics in the brain, previous studies used single words or phrases to see what’s going on.

But Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, and his colleagues, including lead author Alex Huth, wanted to know how our brains map out a more natural, narrative story. They asked seven participants to listen to a few hours of The Moth Radio Hour, a storytelling program. They hooked each participant up to an fMRI machine–which measures changes in blood flow and volume caused by the activity of neurons in the brain–so they could see exactly what areas of the brain lit up and when.

Afterwards, they used transcripts of the narratives along with the fMRI scans to understand first what words corresponded to the lit up areas of the brain and second, to create a model that predicts brain activity based on the words the person heard.

An interactive model of how we understand language

By putting together information from all seven participants, with the help of a statistical model, the researchers created a brain atlas, a 3D model of the brain that shows what brain areas lit up at the same time among all the participants. They also created an interactive version of the atlas. The interactive can be found here.

People were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they listened to hours of stories from The Moth Radio Hour.

Alexander Huth

Participants listened to hours of spoken language while scientists scanned their brains using an fMRI scanner. Using a computer algorithm, they created an atlas of the brain’s response to different word categories.

What does the model tell us about language?

The researchers found that word meaning is distributed across the cerebral cortex, in 100 different areas that span both hemispheres. Looking at all the participants’ scans as a whole, they found that certain regions of the brain are associated with certain word meanings. For example, hearing language about people tends to activate one area of the brain, about places in another, and about numbers in a third–demonstrating a basic organizing principle for how the brain handles different components of language.

While the results were quite similar across individuals, this doesn’t mean that the researchers have created a definitive atlas for language. First, the study only looked at seven participants, all from the same area of the world and all speakers of English. It also only used just one source of input: a series of spoken, engaging narrative stories. The researchers are eager to learn how things like experience, native language, and culture will alter the map.

Further, Gallant says, they think the map could also change if the setting changed or if a person was in a different mental state: if a person read the story instead of hearing it, or instead of hearing an engaging story, the context was tedious cramming for an exam.

Gallant says these would likely change the map as well, and he plans to learn how in future research.

How will this map help?

Many brain disorders and injuries affect language areas in the brain, says Gallant. This atlas could act as the basis of our being able to understand how brains and their maps change after a brain injury affecting language, like a stroke, or are different in language disorders like dyslexia or social language disorders like autism.

For now, Gallant says, this study helps to show the importance of not just brain anatomy but the physiology or function behind that anatomy. “In neuroscience we know a lot about the anatomy of the brain, down to single synapses, but what we really want to know about is the function.” The combination, he says, is the key to really understanding the brain.

With much more research, this idea could be used as a sort of decoding mechanism: a map of fMRI data could be used to “read” what words a person is reading, hearing, or thinking, which could allow people with communication disorders like ALS to better communicate.

Original article published here: Popular Science

Don’t Let Your Message Get Lost in Translation – Key Insights on Localization

Successful communication between people is a delicate and quite complex process. Not only does it require some charisma, but a balanced level of empathy as well. What do I mean exactly when saying “successful communication?” In terms of marketing, it really boils down to one key point: to encourage the recipient of your message to answer positively to it, e.g.buy the product you’re offering them. Getting a positive response from consumers from your own language and cultural background may be relatively easy, but what about going global?

How will you present your offer to potential clients from other countries in an appealing way? After you’ve created the foundation – e.g. the product plus the marketing content – and you want to expand your business’ market range, there are a number of points you want to check on your list. That’s where the localization team comes in.

No, I’m Not a Construction Worker

(though being a crane operator would be kind of cool.)


When asked about my job, I always follow the same pattern. First, I say that I work in a localization team, and then I wait for one of the two usual questions: 1. “What does that mean?”; and 2. “So you work onsite?” The answer to the latter is “No”, and the former leads to another question: “I’m dealing with translations and manage the translation process” – “So you’re a translator?” Another “No” (at least in this context).

In the beginning I found it difficult to explain to those not familiar with the term “localization” what it is I actually do. The simplest definition I can come up with is: “to convey given content in a given language/cultural background, bearing in mind what kind of medium the content will appear in.” Still kind of confusing… let’s take a website as an example. You own a business and come up with a website describing what you do. After a while you decide it’s time to reach out to a broader audience, which usually involves the translation of the website content into different languages. So, you have to look for a translation agency and send a link to your website or all of the texts you display on it to them – and that’s it?

how about no

If you wish for your business to be successful (who doesn’t?), there are a couple of rules you have to keep in mind before deciding to “go for it,” and leaving it to specialists in the field of localization is a good idea.

Rule 1: Know the Values and Goals of the Company

Rarely, if ever, does a person or a company come right up with a clear-cut definition of what they are all about. However, in order for a linguist to convey your message properly, they have to be provided with an overall description of what you do (your business field) and how your customers will profit from cooperation with you. Sure, perhaps you have those ideas in your mind and linguists may be able to pick them up while working on the text, but – for your own peace of mind – have it input plainly within a style guide.

What points should a style guide include?

1. Business description (as explained above) – both for your coworkers and linguists

2. General language usage guidelines for your coworkers (so the texts they create in the future is consistent with the existing copy), e.g.:

  • examples of the types of texts you’re producing (marketing copy for your website, email marketing copy, notifications, legal, etc.),
  • style and tone of voice to be used in a given type of text,
  • requirements for numerals, how to present currencies, what punctuation rules to make use of, etc. – those might seem petty, but they do influence the overall image of your business;

3. General language usage guidelines for linguists – as above, though the linguists will have to adopt the style, tone, and restrictions to their own language and cultural background.

A simple PDF document will suffice, one could easily be created using free software, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader DC. Having done that, you can expect that anyone involved in your business will be able to conform to the requirements you presented them with, no matter if they are your long-term business partners or newbies. And you can do even more: while coming up with a style guide, the terms that are of significant value for your business can be fished out, which leads us to the next rule.

Rule 2: Give Straightforward Directions


We may not like the general idea of labelling, but it does pay off when it comes to localization. That’s why there are two main “labelling lists” on the translation menu:

  • do-not-translate lists – terms, e.g. proper names, which are to be left in the source language (i.e. in the original language you used when coming up with them),
  • glossaries – terms that cannot be left in the source language, though they have to be translated consistently,

both of which can be created in Libre Office Calc Spreadsheet.

“But it’s so time-consuming!”, you might say. Sure it is, but guess what: if you neglect this step from the beginning, you’ll have to spend much more time deciding which of the translations is more to the point (which involves acquiring the opinion of an expert in a given language) and changing it EVERYWHERE. Taking into consideration all of the contexts a given word/phrase is present on your website, and all of the ways it’s been implemented on the website (from the IT point of view). Conclusion: the sooner the better, end of story. And after you’ve done that, it’s time for part 3.

Rule 3: Make Everyone’s Life Easier

This rule concerns everyone around you. After the linguists have been provided with a style guide and a glossary, plus a do-not-translate list, you want the translation to be easy to upload to the website and easy to check after it appears on the page. That is why you have to squeeze the most out of your coworkers (content managers, IT, etc.) Why? The more information your linguists have, the fewer corrections will be necessary for your project to be successful. There’s one more thing: encourage those in your vicinity towork on the same software, if possible. Nowadays, there is plenty of software that supports the same file extensions, however it often happens that different programs have difficulties (ergo: you have difficulties) when working with or even opening those files. That is why I advise you to specify what kind of software your coworkers and subcontractors are to work with, be that software for website contents, newsletters, or digital product brochures. Speaking of extensions…

Rule 4: Cats Are Localization’s Best Friends

CATs collage

Not to be confused with the domestic cat or construction machinery! CATs (computer-assisted translation programs) are the most amazing softwarethat have ever appeared on the localization/translation market. In the past, one had to wait for nearly two months in order to have given content translated, reviewed, and tested. The texts for localization had to be either compiled and sent as packages (and I mean packages, literally) to linguists, or one had to employ translators and reviewers full-time in order to be sure everything is going smoothly. Nowadays, with the usage of CAT tools, the localization team can:

  • prepare almost all file extensions for translation,
  • be sure that the translation is consistent (thanks to technology used in CAT tools),
  • receive files that are ready-to-use by you and/or your team,
  • conduct tests or have the files proofread after the translation has been implemented.

Thanks to this advanced software one saves time, money, and effort, no matter if you’ve created an internal localization team or if you are outsourcing services.

Rule 5: Double- and Triple-Check

The better the quality of your work, the better the chances you’ll sell your product. That is why it is crucial to ensure the quality of the texts you are publishing. Having a given text reviewed by another linguist is one thing (so-called QA, quality assurance) – there is plenty of free software that makes a localization worker’s life easier, such as terminology management programswhich allow one to check the coherence of translated texts without knowing the language in question. Also, after implementing a given text to, say, a website, you want it to be checked in terms of layout, since each language abides by its own rules.

To Sum Up…

As you may see now, presenting your product to a broader audience in a successful way requires a considerable amount of effort, especially in the beginning of the process. It may seem daunting as first, but it does pay off tenfold in the long run. As a company owner or a specialist in a given field, you may not have enough time to manage the process of going global in terms of language. There are, thankfully, people who are passionate specialists in the field of localization – an area of expertise that incorporates both the beauty of humanities and the thoroughness of exact sciences – and who would be happy to take some weight off your shoulders. Now with the basic know-how about what to do and what to expect, your business may be presented on the foreign markets in the best way possible.

Original article published here: GetResponse