An international team of scientists from the UK, Spain, Denmark and Russia conducted an experiment to show that people automatically integrate extralinguistic information into grammatical processing during verbal communication. The research results have been published in Scientific Reports.
During our daily communication, listening to the radio or watching television, people perceive verbal information and process these both linguistic and extralinguistic features. The former is related to the semantics, syntax, morphology, and phonology of the language, while the latter indicates the speaker’s gender, age, status, and mood. Successful communication relies on the effective processing of both types of information.
In early stages of language processing, the human brain is able to detect whether a grammatical construct, such as a subject-verb match in a sentence, is correct. Extralinguistic information, such as the speaker’s gender, is also processed in the early stages of speech analysis. But until recently, it was unclear what happens first: processing of the grammatical gender or the gender of the speaker.
To answer this question, the researchers conducted an experiment with 37 native speakers of Russian: 17 males and 20 females, ages 19 to 32. The Russian language was chosen for the experiment because, firstly, there is similarity between males and females, the grammatical feature examined in the study.
Second, in this language, the extralinguistic information can be reflected in grammatical constructions: verbs in the past tense can have masculine, feminine or neuter gender forms. This allowed the researchers to study the processing of linguistic and extralinguistic information simultaneously.
During the experiment, the participants watched the animated film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with the sound off. At the same time, phrases were played through earphones spoken in two voices: male and female.
The sentences used ten Russian verbs in the past tense singular (which is gender-marked in Russian). Although the sentences were grammatically correct, the verbs sometimes agreed or disagreed with the gender of the speaker. The sentences were repeated 20 times in a pseudo-random order. The participants were instructed to ignore the auditory stimuli and focus on the movie. During the experiment, the electrical activity of the brain was recorded using EEG.
After watching the film, participants were asked to complete a multiple-choice questionnaire to ensure that they had paid attention to the film and not to the auditory stimuli. They were then instructed to read the 10 experimental verb forms and choose from 20 fillers (verb forms that were not used in the experiment).
The EEG data showed that both selected features – the grammatical gender and the speaker’s gender – were analyzed simultaneously and automatically during early speech processing.
Maria Alekseeva, the study’s author, Junior Research Fellow at the Center for Cognition and Decision Making, says their “research combines linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. The findings 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.”
Research shows how people perceive gender through speech
Maria Alekseeva et al, Neurophysiological correlates of automatic integration of voice and gender information during grammatical processing, Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-14478-2
Provided by National Research University Higher School of Economics
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