Experimental Linguistics Module – Autumn 2011

Tuesday 2-4pm, Bancroft Building room 102.6

  • Module Description

    The goal of this module is to take students with no prior training in the methods or tools of experimental psychological science and provide them with the theoretical and practical training required to be able to critically engage with the Psycholinguistics literature and to undertake experimental linguistics research themselves. The module will include hands-on training in inferential statistics and hypothesis testing, experimental design, data collection (including training in ethical human subjects research protocols), and data analysis. The module will also engage students in considering strengths and limitations of various kinds of linguistics data, and how multiple sources of data and methods of data collection can be combined to enhance understanding. Students will develop their critical reading skills and gain practice in presenting primary source literature to their peers.

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week 12: wrap up slides

Posted by Linnaea on December 13, 2011

Due to a lingering illness, the last two weeks of the semester have been rather less full of data analysis and progress than I had hoped. The disappointing news is that due to my basically being entirely out of commission for a week, students won’t have an opportunity to analyse their own data. Everyone will have to content themselves with reporting the results of the aggregate analysis. But perhaps this comes as a relief to some students, who might feel like they’ve already spent as much time with excel as they ever want to spend.

Today’s class was very short (I still can’t really speak), and mainly consisted of my going through the requirements for the final assignment. As promised, I’ve uploaded the slides that accompanied this exciting ‘lecture’.

Within a day or two, I’ll also upload the summary statistics on the participant data, and the summary statistics for the data analysis. These will be in the format of tables that can be imported into excel or numbers or pasted into online data visualisation tools like IBM’s many eyes tool. Student’s will have to decide how best to visually represent the results through a combination of tables and graphs.

Thanks to everyone for a great semester – I really enjoyed working with you all on this project.


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week 8

Posted by Linnaea on November 23, 2011

I’m really not winning any awards for keeping on top of these updates, am I? Anyhow…

After a very badly needed reading week, we’ve switched gears a bit. The first half of the semester we focused on speech perception and looking at how our language specific, acquired, abstract knowledge of the phonological system of our language guides speech perception at the earliest stages, and even prevents us reliably hearing distinctions in that speech signal.

We’ve now traded speech and auditory information for written language, and we’ve jumped up a few levels from phonetics and phonology to morphology, syntax and semantics. In week 8, we read a whole series of papers arguing back and forth about standards of syntactic evidence, and how to reconcile the practice of theoretical linguists with the standard methods of testing scientific hypotheses that prevail in the other cognitive sciences. This is very much an ongoing debate that will no doubt inspire many more papers, but my optimistic view of the situation is that linguists and psycholinguists are getting better at communicating with each other. In the 10+ years since I’ve been involved in doing experimental linguistic research myself, I’ve definitely noticed a huge change. Linguists are becoming much more sophisticated about using the tools of experimental psych and neuroscience in their work, and it is increasingly common for linguists to include data from experiments and corpus work along side the traditional elicited judgements that have long formed the core of research on syntax and semantics. And psycholinguists and other cognitive scientists and neuroscientists with interests in language are becoming more open to collaborating with linguists in order to investigate more sophisticated, nuanced and theoretically motivated questions. Research on the processing and neurobiology of languages other than the typical English, Dutch and German is growing. I think we’re making real progress.

So on this optimistic note, the second half of the semester was launched and we dived into the world of sentence processing and reading studies.

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Weeks 4-6: catch up

Posted by Linnaea on November 3, 2011

I haven’t kept up with regular posts here over the last couple of weeks. Sorry for that. As everyone who has been to class knows, we’ve made quite a bit of progress with our exploration of the literature on non-native speech perception. We read the classic overview paper by Janet Werker that summarizes a whole host of experiments testing the ability of children and adults to perceive speech sound contrasts not present in whatever language or languages they were exposed to from birth. The upshot of this research seems to be that while we are born with the capacity to distinguish all possible speech sounds (useful, since there’s no telling what language we’ll find ourselves learning), this ability declines very rapidly, such that 10 month olds are already appreciably worse than 6 month olds, and 12 month olds worse still.

This body of research mostly relies on behavioural measures, such as high amplitude sucking tests, head turn procedures, and button pressing forced choice discrimination experiments. These measures can tell us that, say, adult speakers of English aren’t very good at discriminating Hindi retroflex and dental stops (since this is not a contrast we make use of in English), but it can’t tell us where/when in the perception process the discrimination trouble arrises. It could be that we can hear the contrast fine, just not make use of it to do a task.

To investigate this further, we looked at a series of experiments that rely on the <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mismatch_negativity"Mismatch Negativity or Mismatch Field, an evoked neural response associated with the detection of anomaly. For instance, we read Nätäänen et al (1999) who showed that Finnish speakers were unable to detect an anomalous /õ/ vowel sound against a background of /ö/s, but that Estonian speakers had no trouble perceiving the difference. Why? Estonian speakers make use of an /õ/ /ö/ contrast in their language, but Finnish speakers don’t. And the failure to find a mismatch response for the Finnish speakers suggests that Finnish speakers just genuinely do not reliably perceive the difference in sounds, even at the early, low level, automatic stages in processing indexed by the MMN.

Finally, we turned to phonotactics. It’s one thing to say that we lose the ability to perceive a sound contrast, such as /ö/ vs. /õ/, if we never hear it. But what about perceiving sequences of sounds, where the individual segments are all phonemes in our language, but the specific arrangement of those segments is not possible. Japanese, for instance, does not allow consonant clusters in syllable onsets, or allow any but a very few consonants in coda position. The result is that English words like ‘tennis’ (phonetically /tE-nIs/ are borrowed as ‘tEnIsU’ in Japanese (rough transcription), with an additional ‘u’ added word finally to turn the ‘s’ into an onset rather than an illegal coda.

In week 5, we read a series of papers all looking at what effect this phonotactic constraint (the prohibition against non-nasal codas and complex onsets) has for Japanese speakers when they listen to nonsense words like `ebzo’. Dupoux et al (1999), in a set of 4 experiments, show that Japanese speakers are significantly worse than French speakers at discriminating between nonwords like `ebzo’ that violate the syllable structure rules of Japanese, and nonwords like `ebuzo’ that conform to those rules. Apparently the process of epenthesis that is reflected in the loan word adaption we see in ‘tEnIsu’ is not merely due to restrictions on what Japanese speakers can say, but in fact may arrise entirely due to an inability of Japanese speakers to even hear the illegal word forms accurately in the first place.

This suggests that language specific grammatical factors have an impact on very early stages of speech perception. The paper we read by Dehaene et al (2000) confirms this suspicion. Using a slightly modified version of the Mismatch paradigm developed by Nätäänen, Dehaene et al show that Japanese speakers don’t exhibit a mismatch response to deviant `ebuzo’ following multiple `ebzo’ standards.

Against the backdrop of all of this research, we’ll be conducting our own class research project using a forced choice discrimination paradigm. We’ll be comparing the abilities of speakers of English and Hindi/Urdu to perceive the difference between (a) singleton and geminate consonants & (b) coronal, retroflex, palatal and velar consonants. Hindi, Urdu and the other Western Hindi languages use gemination phonemically, whereas in English, the only time we get gemination is when we have two homorganic oral consonants across a word boundary as in mint tea vs. minty. Although this difference is systematic, it’s a much less important cue to word meaning than the singleton/geminate contrast is in Hindi, as lexical stress placement also distinguishes these pairs.

We’re also manipulating consonant voicing as a baseline, since this is a feature that both English and Western Hindi languages make use of phonemically.

Thus we have one feature (place of articulation) that we are very sure should be difficult for English speakers to discriminate, because U.K. English simply doesn’t have retroflex or palatal stops, one feature that English speakers should have no trouble discriminating (voicing), and one feature that should be in the middle (gemination). Hindi and Urdu speakers should have excellent discrimination abilities on all three dimensions. We’ll be running this experiment over the next month, so stay tuned for the results.

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Week 3: Levels of Representation in Speech Processing

Posted by Linnaea on October 18, 2011

After a couple of weeks of basic background and organisation, we finally got in to the core of the course this week. Starting with Tuesday’s class, and for the next 3 weeks, we’ll be focusing on the issue of speech perception and linguistic sound systems. Today we began with trying to appreciate the big picture issue: how do we reliably, rapidly, and apparently effortlessly, convert the sound waves that hit our ears and find their way into our brains into linguistic information? We talked about the fact that there is clearly something special about human brains that allows this to happen, since the same sound waves can hit the ears of your cat, or be picked up by a microphone attached to a computer, without the same resulting comprehension. A big, live, open research question is: what is it that’s special? I began the class with a short slide show providing some basic background about the human auditory system and sketched a basic story about how we start turning sound waves into neuro-electrical impulses that are interpretable by the brain.

Then we turned the class over to Anisha Mohammed, Emma Swan and Janusz Baginski, who lead a very audience-participation-full discussion of the two papers we read. Through a combination of games, small experiments, videos and slides, Anisha, Emma and Janusz tried to clarify some of the important basic distinctions between phonetics and phonology, and between conscious and unconscious knowledge of language.

We didn’t delve too deeply into the specifics of the experiments Phillips discusses, but I hope everyone is at least starting to feel like some aspects of speech perception are a little more familiar and accessible. In week 4 we’ll focus on the specific issue of phoneme perception, both from a developmental and neurobiological perspective.

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Week Two: Vocabulary and Methods

Posted by Linnaea on October 5, 2011

Yesterday we ran through quite a lot of basic vocabulary and terminology, and reviewed the basic foundations of experimental research. It probably won’t rate as the most exciting class of the semester, but the hope is that once we start reading real papers and discussing them, this background will be useful.

We started by situating experimental linguistics within the context of cognitive psychological research/approaches more generally. While we may ultimately be interested in abstract linguistic knowledge, or abstract rules and principles that govern language behaviour, using the tools of psych science requires us to be explicit about our models of how knowledge and use of language relate to and depend on our other cognitive capacities. We specifically talked about memory, and considered some of the different kinds of memory and how they might relate to aspects of the linguistic system. In coming weeks, we’ll focus on other cognitive capacities, such as auditory processing (starting next week) and reading ability and visual processing (after reading week). A big challenge for all of us interested in understanding the human linguistic capacity and human language behaviour, is to understand what aspects of our language knowledge and use are domain general and connected to our other capacities, and which aspects might be specific to the language capacity.

We also whizzed quickly through the basic logic of experimental scientific research – we defined some basic terms like dependent and independent variables and talked about some of the many, many different choices that have to be made when deciding on a research protocol to address a given question. The slides I presented are here. Note that many of the images and figures in these slides are borrowed from published papers, web sites, other people’s slides, etc. Apologies for not including careful citations for all sources.

Finally, we settled on a schedule for which team of students will take charge of which week for the rest of the term. Starting next week (October 11), rather than have a formal lecture on the day’s topic, a team of three students will organise the discussion. They’ll be counting on everyone in the room to have done the reading and have questions and comments to make. I’ll update the schedule later this week to include the names of the students in charge of each week.

Students preparing their presentations are STRONGLY encouraged to come meet with me well in advance of the week they are in charge of so I can share any materials I might have with them and we can make sure all the most important aspects of the topic get covered. Having student lead discussions is not a way for me to get out of doing any work for this module, quite the contrary, so please include me in your planning groups.

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Week One: Intro & Admin

Posted by Linnaea on September 27, 2011

Today we discussed the assessments for this module, and discovered that I had, of course, managed to make a copy/paste error from one side of the syllabus to the other. To confirm my correction in class, the 1000 word presentation synopsis is worth 20% and the 2000 word experiment report is worth 30%. The assessments page has been updated, and a corrected copy of the syllabus is here.

We also reviewed the list of topics and papers that we’ll read and talked about the general themes and goals of the module. I officially anointed all class members as research assistants in the new Experimental Linguistics Lab. I asked everyone to start brainstorming about a name for the new lab. We need a clever and catchy name or acronym, like LIPS or BRAMS. Anyone with any ideas should respond to this post.

For next week, undergraduate students need to start thinking about which topic they would like to work on, and which other two students they would like to work with. We’ll match students and topics next week, and start the presentations on October 11.

Masters students should also start thinking about a possible topic for their lab meeting presentation. As we discussed today, the goal is to find the intersection between the methods of cognitive psychology/cognitive neuroscience and your own research interests in linguistics. Assuming the new lab is ready for us to start using for meetings on October 11 (which may be too optimistic), that gives us 8 lab meetings during which students can present. Since there are 13 students, at least a few of you will need to pair up. We’ll talk more about this next week.

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