Genes and Language


Eighteenth Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2003

Lecture 8   :   7 March 2003

Professor Dorothy Bishop
Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University


Although humans are genetically very similar to other primates, we differ massively in cognitive abilities, with the most remarkable difference being in our capacity for language. This raises the question of whether language requires some entirely new cognitive ability, perhaps arising as the consequence of a specific genetic change - what has been termed the 'hopeful monster' view of human language. Or is language made possible simply by the fact that our larger brains allow us to store more material and perform mental computations more rapidly than other primates? These questions have been put into sharper focus by researchers studying genetic bases of developmental language disorders. As we home in on genes that are related to language competence, we can learn more about how the specific design of the human brain makes it possible for us to communicate.


Dorothy Bishop is a psychologist with a particular interest in language disorders. She studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford University before going on to complete an M.Phil in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in 1975. She returned to Oxford to do a D.Phil at the Neuropsychology Unit in the Radcliffe Infirmary. There she was diverted from an initial interest in acquired aphasia (language impairment) in adults to the study of developmental language disorders, which has been her principal topic of research ever since. She was for 20 years funded by the Medical Research Council, first in Oxford, and then at the universities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Manchester, and at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge. In 1998, she moved to the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford as a Wellcome Principal Research Fellow, where she heads a programme of research into the Nature and Causes of Children's Language Impairments, funded by the Wellcome Trust. Professor Bishop has authored over 100 research papers as well as two books: Handedness and Developmental Disorders (1990), and Uncommon Understanding (1997). Current topics of research include behaviour genetics, handedness, studies of brain function in language-impaired children, and the borderlands of autistic disorder.

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