Tuesday, April 6, 2010

John’s grandmother feeds the monkey every morning

There's a brief and shallow puff piece out discussing new research about differences in how the brain processes word order versus inflection with the absurd title Languages use different parts of the brain. Even if you know nothing about linguistics you can quickly determine that the title is absurd because the article itself admits that the study involved used only ONE language! This was not a cross-linguistic study. It says nothing about what parts of the brain different languages use. The author makes the leap of logic assuming that (A) because languages can be typed according to their morphology (fusional, agglutinating, etc) that (B) therefore languages that are predominantly agglutinating must be processed differently than fusional languages. Nope. The study did not show this.

The research paper which spawned this puff piece is Dissociating neural subsystems for grammar by contrasting word order and inflection Aaron J. Newmaa, Ted Supalla, Peter Hauser, Elissa L. Newport, and Daphne Bavelier, but it's behind a firewall, of course. As far as I can tell from the abstract, the researchers used sign language stimuli to discover that sentences which relied on word order to convey case information activated different patterns in the brain than sentences using inflections (which the puff piece quaintly calls "tags"). From the abstract:

During functional (f)MRI, native signers viewed sentences that used only word order and sentences that included inflectional morphology. The two sentence types activated an overlapping network of brain regions, but with differential patterns. Word order sentences activated left-lateralized areas involved in working memory and lexical access, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the inferior frontal gyrus, the inferior parietal lobe, and the middle temporal gyrus. In contrast, inflectional morphology sentences activated areas involved in building and analyzing combinatorial structure, including bilateral inferior frontal and anterior temporal regions as well as the basal ganglia and medial temporal/limbic areas. These findings suggest that for a given linguistic function, neural recruitment may depend upon on the cognitive resources required to process specific types of linguistic cues. (emphasis added).

The final sentence of the abstract is compelling as it makes a claim about neural recruitment and cognitive  resources. NOT about different languages using different parts of the brain!  There are some respected linguistics on the author list, so I suspect the paper worth reading (if they would let me, that is!). But the original puff piece did provide two of the stimuli:
  • John’s grandmother feeds the monkey every morning.
  • The prison warden says all juveniles will be pardoned tomorrow.
Psycholinguistics stimuli are often funny because they need to be constructed to contain very specific features, so I can forgive them these awkward sentences, but really? They couldn't have gramma feeding a dog? It had to be a monkey? Hmmmmm. Probably has something to do with the inflections for nouns, but c'mon, a monkey? Sounds down right lewd.

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