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Linguistic perception

Neural processing of a whistled language

A rare surrogate of Spanish highlights the adaptability of the brain's language regions.


Silbo Gomero is a whistled language that is a rare and endangered surrogate of Spanish, used by shepherds on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands for communication over long distances on difficult terrain. Here we show that areas of the brain normally associated with spoken-language function are also activated in proficient whistlers, but not in controls, when they are listening to Silbo Gomero. Our findings demonstrate that the language-processing regions of the human brain can adapt to a surprisingly wide range of signalling forms.

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Figure 1: Colour-coded brain-activation patterns from functional neuroimaging of Silbadores and non-whistler controls, produced in response to tasks in Silbo Gomero and in Spanish.
Figure 2: Silbador from La Gomera in the Canary Islands using the whistled language Silbo Gomero as a means of remote communication.


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Correspondence to Manuel Carreiras.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Methods

Description of the participants, stimuli, the fMRI procedure and data analyses. It also includes a spectrogram of two whistled words. (DOC 197 kb)

Supplementary Table S1

Details of activations. (DOC 101 kb)

Supplementary Figure S1

fitted and adjusted times series of the ROI (Region of Interest) for one silbador and one non-whistler (PDF 44 kb)

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Carreiras, M., Lopez, J., Rivero, F. et al. Neural processing of a whistled language. Nature 433, 31–32 (2005).

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