An international team of scientists from the UK, Spain, Denmark and Russia (including researchers from the HSE Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience) conducted an experiment demonstrating that people automatically integrate extralinguistic information into grammatical processing when verbal communication. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Scientific Reports.

During our daily communications, listening to the radio or watching television, people perceive and process verbal information that includes both linguistic and extralinguistic features. The former relates to the semantics, syntax, morphology and phonology of the language, while the latter signals the gender, age, status and mood of the speaker. Successful communication relies on the effective processing of both types of information.

In the early stages of language processing, the human brain is able to detect whether a grammatical construction, for example a subject-verb agreement in a sentence, is correct. Extralinguistic information, such as the gender of the speaker, is also processed in the early stages of speech analysis. But until recently, we didn’t know what was going on before: processing grammatical gender or speaker gender.

To answer this question, the researchers conducted an experiment involving 37 native Russian speakers: 17 men and 20 women aged 19 to 32. The Russian language was chosen for the experiment because, first, it has gender agreement, the grammatical feature examined in the study. . Second, in this language, extralinguistic information can be reflected in grammatical constructions: past tense verbs can have masculine, feminine, or neuter forms. This has allowed researchers to study both linguistic and extralinguistic information processing.

During the experiment, participants watched Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit animated film (directed by Nick Park and Steve Box, 2005) with the sound muted. At the same time, phrases were played to them through headphones spoken in two voices – male and female. The sentences used ten Russian verbs in the singular past tense (which is marked by gender in Russian). While the sentences were grammatically correct, the verb forms sometimes agreed or disagreed with the speaker’s gender. The sentences were repeated 20 times in a pseudo-random order. Participants were instructed to ignore auditory stimuli and focus on the movie. During the experiment, the electrical activity of the brain was recorded using EEG.

After viewing the film, participants were asked to complete a multiple-choice questionnaire to ensure that they had been paying attention to the film and not the auditory stimuli. Then they were instructed to read and choose the 10 experimental verb forms out of 20 loads (verb forms that were not used in the experiment).

EEG data demonstrated that the two selected features; grammatical gender and speaker gender; were analyzed simultaneously and automatically during early speech processing.

Maria Alekseeva, author of the study, junior researcher at the Center for Cognition and Decision Making:

“Our research combines linguistics, psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience. The results presented in the article will not only contribute to our understanding of how language works and how it is processed by the brain, but may also facilitate our interpersonal communication.


National Research University Graduate School of Economics

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