Sex of speaker affects listener language processing

Tue, 11/19/2013

Contact

Karen Henry
Life Span Institute
785-864-0756

LAWRENCE — Whether we process language we hear without regard to anything about the speaker is a longstanding scientific debate. But it wasn’t until University of Kansas scientists set up an experiment showing that the sex of a speaker affected how quickly listeners identified words grammatically that there was evidence that even higher-level processes are affected by the speaker.

Based on the fact that Spanish words have a grammatical gender — words ending in “o” are typically masculine and in “a” are typically feminine — the researchers showed that the sex of a speaker affected how fast and accurately listeners could identify a list of Spanish words as masculine or feminine. When there was a mismatch between the sex of the speaker and the gender of the word, listeners slowed down in identifying the word grammatically and were less accurate. Both the speakers and listeners were native Spanish speakers.

Grammar and syntax have been thought for decades to be automatic and untouchable by other brain processes, said Michael Vitevitch, KU professor of psychology. Everything else — the sex of the speaker, their dialect, etc. — is stripped away as our brains process the sound signal of a word and store it as an abstract form. This is the abstractionist model of how we store words in memory championed by well-known cognitive scientist, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and his followers.

An alternate school of thought conceives of our brains processing words using exemplars containing and indexing information about both the word and the speaker.

“Our study shows that all that other information does influence not just word recognition processing, but higher-level processes associated with grammar,” said Vitevitch.

Vitevitch said that while linguists and psychologists have debated whether memory is abstract or exemplar, he believes that there is evidence for both. “We didn’t evolve to be efficient. We evolved to get the job done,” he said. “We need both systems.”

The study was published in in the journal PLOS ONE on Nov. 13.

Allard Jongman, professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics, Joan Sereno, professor of linguistics, and Rutherford Goldstein, psychology graduate student, were study collaborators and co-authors.



Substance abuse can be a struggle for many college students, but the University of Kansas Medical Center is taking action. Click here to see how KU is improving substance abuse prevention and treatment at colleges across Kansas. http://bit.ly/1sHAfTl Tags: #KUworks #College #SubstanceAbuse #Prevention
30% of #physicians will be lost to retirement/attrition over next decade. #KS needs KU #HealthEducationInitiative . #Doctors4KS #ksleg
KU-Van Go partnership supports young people in need Van Go, a Lawrence social service agency, and student interns from the University of Kansas use art to teach job and life skills to high-needs youth. Since the program was established in 1997, hundreds of teens in crisis have found success as they create art for the community. In 2013, Van Go and KU received the inaugural Outstanding Community & Campus Collaboration Award at the Campus Compact Heartland Conference on Civic Engagement. The award recognizes an outstanding, involved, and sustained campus--community partnership.


One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
1 of 9 public universities with outstanding study abroad programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
—ALA
$275 million in externally funded research expenditures
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times