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 has a red shirt), thus the brain gets a lot of training with this type of sentence (aka canonical constructions). However, there are other types of sentences that are grammatically correct yet infrequent, such as object-subject-verb sentences (the boy that the man pushes has a red shirt). These noncanonical sentences are known to be difficult to understand as the brain goes through its most frequent processing pattern of S-V-O which in fact must be overridden.

In picture matching tasks, the listener should indicate the correct picture that matches the sentence they heard. In this case, the correct depiction of the sentence is (1)

This means that upon encountering 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 plausible to be the subject and 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 (the “boy” or the “man” ?!).

If you are a successful comprehender and you have managed to work with this conflicting information immediately in real-time, then you may be able to understand this sentence correctly. But think about a vulnerable system (for instance, individuals who have communication disorder); or individuals who have better or worse English skills; or people who have a better cognitive skill or literacy experience. There are so many factors that can play a significant role in the success to process a sentence.

Recently researchers sought to understand these underlying factors in the human computational systems that can affect the real-time interpretation of speech. I am also among these researchers, and I use eye-tracking as a method for assessing individuals’ comprehension of speech on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis. Specifically, I use the visual world eye-tracking paradigm, which will allow me to understand how cognitive processes work in real-time. See some of my findings here.