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Where’s the toolbox? Using hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches improves language skills

Mechanical tool use and language skills are linked to the same brain region, says new study.

Fundamental Research icon Fundamental Research

Language is a complex skill that mobilises brain networks specially dedicated to linguistic processing. Understanding the syntax of complex sentences is a difficult language skill to acquire. The use of tools for food and shelter dates back millions of years in our family tree. But what’s the connection? Both tool use and language have helped humans evolve over millions of years. Hypotheses have claimed that syntax and tool use may share brain resources because of the similarity between the motor processes involved in tool use and those supporting language.

Link between language and tool use in the brain

A research team from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in France, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 and Université Lumière Lyon 2 in collaboration with Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet explored whether using mechanical tools engages parts of the brain similar to those mobilised when it builds sentences. In total, 244 participants did tests that involved motor training and syntax exercises in French. Results showed that these two skills engage the same brain region. They also found training with mechanical tools enhances our ability to understand the syntax of complex sentences, and vice versa. In other words, tool use increases language use, and language use increases tool use. The findings were published in the journal ‘Science’. During the motor training, the volunteers used mechanical pliers to insert small pegs into different holes. For the syntax exercises, they were shown simple and complex sentences and had to judge whether they were true or false. The researchers used brain imaging techniques to identify the brain networks activated during both exercises. The participants activated common areas of the brain in a region called the basal ganglia, responsible for motor control and learning, behaviour and emotion, in both tasks.

Can training one skill improve the other?

After concluding that these two skills use the same brain resources, the team of researchers wanted to examine whether training one skill could also improve the other. This involved syntax exercises before and after 30 minutes of motor training with the pliers. They found that motor training with a tool results in improved performance in syntactic comprehension exercises. The scientists are thinking about how to best apply their research in the clinical setting. “We are currently devising protocols that could be put in place to support the rehabilitation and recovery of language skills of patients with relatively preserved motor faculties, such as young people with developmental language disorders,” commented Inserm researcher Claudio Brozzoli in a press release. “Beyond these innovative applications, these findings also give us an insight into how language has evolved throughout history. When our ancestors began to develop and use tools, this proficiency profoundly changed the brain and imposed cognitive demands that may have led to the emergence of certain functions such as syntax.” Lacking in language skills? You might want to pick up that hammer, screwdriver or wrench a little more often.


tool, language skills, tool use, language, brain, syntax, sentence, motor control