In her early years, no one would have expected that Elizabeth Bates would be a scientist and that her theories would one day prevail over the domain of language and cognition leading theories. She was born in Wichita town in Kansas, US in 1947. She did her bachelor’s degree at St Luis University in 1968, then finished her MSc (1971) and Ph.D. (1974) in human development at the University of Chicago. She then worked at the University of Colorado until 1981 when she moved to the University of California where she worked until her early unfortunate death in 2003. If we wanted to summarize her research journey in a few words, it would be: “there’s no brain part that is dedicated to language”.
The questions about how language is processed in the brain were what interested Bates. She also worked hard and had brilliant contributions in the field of language acquisition, aphasia, in addition to her work with Brian MacWhinney on a very complex theory and a model for processing language, a model that takes lexemes, phonemes, and semantics into consideration. She took a functionalist perspective in looking at the language, trying to understand it and explain it on the basis of the language function.
Based on the functionalist view of Bates, she presented her famous hypothesis that denies the existence of a brain part that is specific to language. That means, there is no specific section or area in the brain that is only specified in language, but the brain employs different cognitive parts and uses them for the purpose of communication. In contrast with the other school that Naom Chomsky leads, the nativist approach believes that language has some specific biological base in our brain, or we would innately have an inherited linguistic ability and brain parts for the language. We can’t summarize that discussion in this article for sure, but only highlight it as it’s an important milestone of Bates’s glorious journey.
What supports Bates’s hypothesis is the much biological evidence about the language in the brain, in which scientists can see that they’re not only specific to humans but to animals that don’t have the language concept that we have, starting from the gene FOX2P which scientists have seen that it could enhance some of the skills in the mice, to the most important parts in the brain that were priorly believed to be majorly responsible on language processing in the brain.
Bates also studied children’s language acquisition, she conducted interesting research works on the words that the children invent, or the simplification that they do on the words, she coined the term “protoword”.
Bates and her colleagues found that some of the aphasia patients or those who have brain injuries that should affect the language parts would also have other brain functions affected such as pattern recognition or memory. Therefore, she sees that language is processed in the brain as a general skill. What supports that is neural plasticity, which is described by Spencer Kelly – who often cites Elizabeth Bates and her works: “If you want to mention the most important feature in the brain, then definitely it would be neural plasticity”. Bates found that children who have brain injuries in the left or the right hemisphere can soon learn the language normally, which means that the brain re-organizes itself and re-dedicates its sections so that the human can learn the language. Humans find the reorganization process more difficult in adulthood as neural plasticity declines with age.
All that Elizabeth Bates has achieved was done within a relatively short age, she lived for 56 years, and died in 2003 after struggling with Pancreas cancer. But what she had done in her life is deeper and greater than what many people can do in a longer lifespan.