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Neurolinguistics

Linguists often take their object of study to be mental representations. Neurolinguistics, or the cognitive neuroscience of language, measures brain activity to probe these representations. 

Neurophysiological techniques can give us more precise information about the time course of language processing or allow us to measure subtle perceptual distinctions without the need for an artificial task. We can also use these techniques to ask questions about the neural implementation of language itself. Where are phonemic, semantic and syntactic representations stored? What kind of neural code is used to concatenate smaller pieces into a larger structure? What is the wiring between areas that allows different types of information to contribute to disambiguation? And, are there brain structures that are innately designated for language? Much is still unknown about the measures themselves and therefore cognitive neuroscience studies of language can also contribute more broadly to developing a better understanding of techniques like MEG and fMRI.
 
Faculty and students at Maryland engage in many of these questions, often by examining a language other than English, when that language is better suited to addressing a problem of interest. The department was one of the first sites in the country to have a fully-staffed MEG (magnetoencephalography) facility devoted to research. By recording changes in the magnetic field around the head associated with brain activity, researchers at Maryland have gained significant insights into the processing of auditory, phonological, morphological and lexical-semantic information (e.g., using Turkish to demonstrate that some dimensions of vowel space are paralleled in the location of the early MEG response). The department also houses an EEG (electroencephalography) lab for recording ERPs (event-related potentials) on the scalp. ERP research in the department has examined many aspects of sentence comprehension, including the relative independence of syntactic and semantic processing (in Spanish and Chinese) and differential predictors of tense marking (in Hindi), and there is growing interest in using ERP measures to test computational models of linguistic knowledge. Maryland researchers also have access to a third major non-invasive cognitive neuroscience technique at the Maryland Neuroimaging Center, with state-of-the-art MRI/fMRI facilities. This center opens the door for multimodal imaging research that can combine the temporal precision of EEG/MEG with the spatial specificity of fMRI to provide a more complete view of language processing in the brain.

Lingering effects of disfluent material on the comprehension of garden path sentences

Do we experience garden path effects when a disfluent speaker replaces one verb with another (as in "chosen, uh, I mean selected") and only one of the two yields the garden-path ambiguity?

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Ellen Lau
Dates:

In two experiments, we tested for lingering effects of verb replacement disfluencies on the processing of garden path sentences that exhibit the main verb/reduced relative (MV/RR) ambiguity. Participants heard sentences with revisions like "The little girl chosen, uh, selected for the role celebrated with her parents and friends." We found that the syntactic ambiguity associated with the reparandum verb involved in the disfluency (here "chosen") had an influence on later parsing: Garden path sentences that included such revisions were more likely to be judged grammatical if the reparandum verb was structurally unambiguous. Conversely, ambiguous non-garden path sentences were more likely to be judged ungrammatical if the structurally unambiguous disfluency verb was inconsistent with the final reading. Results support a model of disfluency processing in which the syntactic frame associated with the replacement verb ‘‘overlays’’ the previous verb’s structure rather than actively deleting the already-built tree.

http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1080/0169096044400014" target="_blank" class="button">Read More about Lingering effects of disfluent material on the comprehension of garden path sentences

The role of temporal predictability in semantic expectation: An MEG investigation

Is prediction of an upcoming item improved when its timing is predictable? Maybe yes for vision and audition, but evidently no for language, argue Ellen Lau and Elizabeth Nguyen.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Ellen Lau
Dates:
Prior research suggests that prediction of semantic and syntactic information prior to the bottom-up input is an important component of language comprehension. Recent work in basic visual and auditory perception suggests that the ability to predict features of an upcoming stimulus is even more valuable when the exact timing of the stimulus presentation can also be predicted. However, it is unclear whether lexical-semantic predictions are similarly locked to a particular time, as previous studies of semantic predictability have used a predictable presentation rate. In the current study we vary the temporal predictability of target word presentation in the visual modality and examine the consequences for effects of semantic predictability on the event-related N400 response component, as measured with magnetoencephalography (MEG). Although we observe robust effects of semantic predictability on the N400 response, we find no evidence that these effects are larger in the presence of temporal predictability. These results suggest that, at least in the visual modality, lexical-semantic predictions may be maintained over a broad time-window, which could allow predictive facilitation to survive the presence of optional modifiers in natural language settings. The results also indicate that the mechanisms supporting predictive facilitation may vary in important ways across tasks and cognitive domains.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2015.02.022" target="_blank" class="button">Read More about The role of temporal predictability in semantic expectation: An MEG investigation

A cortical network for semantics: (de)constructing the N400

The right interpretation of the N400 response in measurements of event-related potentials (ERP) is controversial. But key insights come from new evidence of where the response is neurally generated.

Linguistics

Dates:

Measuring event-related potentials (ERPs) has been fundamental to our understanding of how language is encoded in the brain. One particular ERP response, the N400 response, has been especially influential as an index of lexical and semantic processing. However, there remains a lack of consensus on the interpretation of this component. Resolving this issue has important consequences for neural models of language comprehension. Here we show that evidence bearing on where the N400 response is generated provides key insights into what it reflects. A neuroanatomical model of semantic processing is used as a guide to interpret the pattern of activated regions in functional MRI, magnetoencephalography and intracranial recordings that are associated with contextual semantic manipulations that lead to N400 effects.

Primary Faculty

William Idsardi

Professor, Linguistics

1401 A Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-8376

Ellen Lau

Associate Professor, Linguistics

3416 E Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

Colin Phillips

Professor, Linguistics

1413F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-3082

Secondary Faculty

Valentine Hacquard

Professor, Linguistics

1401 F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4935