How does cognitive system shape language?

Can you stop yourself from understanding when someone is speaking to you or around you in your language? One of the most striking properties of the human mind is its ability to interpret speech in real-time. As you are listening, your cognitive system instantly provides the meanings of the words and the rules of grammar to induce a coherent overall interpretation.

In everyday life, you predominantly encounter subject-verb-object sentences (the man that pushes the boy), thus the brain gets a lot of training with these sentences.  But there are grammatically correct, yet infrequent object-subject-verb sentences (the boy that the man pushes) that the brain can process, but does it by reconstructing that deeply implemented S-V-O structure. For example, in the O-S-V sentence, you would think that the “boy” is the subject of the verb “push” due to its syntactic position (in English, the first noun is frequently the subject of the sentence). But when you encounter the second noun, the “man” which is semantically plausible to be the subject and in fact it is, you could experience a moment of huh! (conflict). Soon you reach the verb and that’s when you have to decide who pushed whom between the “boy” and the “man”. If you are a successful comprehender and you have managed to work with these conflicting information in your working memory, then you may do it immediately. But think about a vulnerable system, like aphasia! Or individuals who have a better or worse English skills, or people who have a better cognitive skills. There are so many variables that can play a significant role while processing a sentence.

My work seeks to understand the important variables related to human computational system that can affect the real-time interpretation of sentences. I use eye tracking as a method for assessing individuals’ comprehension of speech on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis. Specifically I use visual world eye tracking paradigm, which will allows me to understand how cognitive processes interact with auditory language processing.

I recently conducted a study with monolingual and bilingual speakers to investigate this interaction and it changes by bilingualism experience. Why bilingualism? Because bilingualism is a life long experience of training the cognitive system as there is a unique need for bilinguals to manage both of their active languages. To communicate efficiently, bilinguals need to inhibit the irrelevant language. This everyday need is induced by the general cognitive control system (the system involve in ignoring the distracting information and focusing on the goal-oriented target). I wanted to know if bilinguals can extend this benefit to comprehending sentences like O-S-V, in which the listener needs to work with the two active noun phrases but eventually choose one as an object of the verb. Using the visual world paradigm, I was able to capture the case of interference between the “boy” and “man”, measure the magnitude of interference across groups in real-time. The results revealed that bilinguals were more efficient than monolinguals at managing interference during their online sentence comprehension.