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Second language acquisition of prosody

tweede taalPhD student: Amanda post da Silveira
Supervisors: Vincent van Heuven, Niels O. Schiller, Johanneke Caspers and Claartje Levelt

At the LUCL I am investigating second language acquisition of prosody. My research is funded by the program Monesia-Erasmus Mundus. I am currently performing behavioral tests to investigate the mechanism of L2 prosody processing assuming theword as a central unit in the structuring of L2 multi-dimensional linguistic knowledge.

I follow the tenets of connectionist modeling which have been proving that phonology, orthographic and semantic representations are co-defining representations of words that may be analyzed both sequentially (in terms of phonemic and graphemic sequence of a word form) and iconically (in the sense that the system recognizes de acoustic and/or visual form and automatically matches it to a template from the L1 or L2 lexicon) by the dynamic L1-L2 system. Similarly, semantic forms also activate semantically related nodes, as well as their respective phonological and orthographic forms. Given this background, we hypothesize that words that are similar in form between L1 and L2 are likely to carry more prosodic transfer from L1 to L2 and vice versa. I intend to use many L1-L2 language pairs, but my main interest is to give an account for the acquisition of L2-English prosody by native speakers of L1-Brazilian Portuguese.

Picture: A Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) 'triangle' model by Seidenberg & McClelland’s (1989)

Neural mechanisms and brain structures underlying individual differences in acquisition of vocabulary and grammar of an artificial language. A neurolinguistic study of language aptitude.

mechanismPhD student: Olga Kepinska 
Supervisors: Johanneke Caspers and Niels O. Schiller

In my research I investigate language aptitude, a specific talent for learning foreign languages that has been extensively studied within the field of second language acquisition. In my project I approach it from a neurolinguistic perspective, looking into how, in terms of neural correlates, highly skilled learners differ from average ones on analytical and memory component of language aptitude.

There are large differences in the way individual human brains work and are built. For example, the size of different brain structures, the number of neurons used to perform certain functions and the integrity of white matter (bundles of fibres connecting different parts of the cortex) vary from person to person. Recent studies show that some of these inter-individual differences correlate with specific cognitive tasks, such as language learning. People differ substantially in their ability to learn languages which may be linked to the diversity of human brains. Despite the recent technological advances in neurolinguistic research, it is still largely unknown how success in foreign language learning can be accounted for in terms of its neural correlates, and why some people are faster and better language learners than others. The aim of my project is therefore to enrich insights into the neural mechanisms and brain structures underlying individual differences in foreign language acquisition. To this end I make use of neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI and DTI combining these with behavioural measures such as language aptitude tests.

Picture: DTI (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) image of brain’s white matter tracts with the left Arcuate Fasciculus in blue.

The time course of orthographic and phonological facilitation in Chinese speech production (China Scholarship Council).

chineesPhD student: Man Wang
Supervisors: Yiya Chen and Niels O. Schiller

My current research project is “Orthographic and phonological facilitation in Mandarin Chinese word production”, granted by NWO and CSC.

Orthographic and phonological facilitation effect, together with semantic interference effect are two effects observed in a picture-word interference (PWI) paradigm. PWI, widely used to study the cognitive process involved in speech production, is a variant of the Stroop task. In a PWI task, a participant is asked to name a picture and to ignore a superimposed distractor word. Because in alphabetic languages, the orthographic and phonological similarities are confounded, as a logographic language, Chinese has been employed the study these two effects in isolation. The current research aims to indentify the time course as well as the relative contribution of these two effects in the process of speech production.

Picture: A functional model of picture naming with word distractors in Chinese (Zhao, La Heij & Schiller, 2012)

Conceptual accessibility effects on sentence production in Tarifiyt Berber.

schommelPhD student: Eleanor Dutton
Supervisor: Niels O. Schiller

Previous research has demonstrated for a variety of languages how the relative conceptual accessibility of referents affects sentence planning and production. For example, when describing a situation where the patient argument is more easily accessible than the agent, speakers are more likely to use grammatical structures which give prominence to the patient - such as passives in English or object-initial actives in Spanish.

The more accessible referent may receive a higher grammatical function, or an earlier position in the sentence, or both. However, to understand how universal cognitive principles such as accessibility interact with language-specific features, we must investigate a range of language types. My research will look at these effects in a Berber language, Tarifiyt. Tarifiyt is traditionally analysed as having basic verb-initial (VSO) word order, with SVO and OVS orders also possible. How does manipulating accessibility affect structural choice in a language with this profile? Tarifiyt has a passive, but this does not allow expression of the agent. This means that an initial choice to assign the patient to subject function constrains the later possibility of expressing the agent. But how far ahead does the processor look before initiating production? My project will aim to address these questions as well as promoting a linguistically diverse perspective in psycholinguistics.

Tapping into semantic recovery: an event-related potential study on the processing of gapping

tappingPhD student: Bobby Ruijgrok
Supervisors: Crit Cremers, Niels O. Schiller and Lisa Cheng

 This project aims to investigate the underlying (neurocognitive) linguistic processes of ellipsis resolution, particularly gapping. The neuroscientific technique "event-related brain potentials" (ERPs) is applied to determine the time-course of ellipsis resolution. Ellipsis is an omnipresent phenomenon in the world's languages and an adequate tool to examine non-lexical processing of meaning.

To interpret (1) a process of semantic recovery is required while processing the right conjunct.

(1)       John likes bananas, and Sally pears.

In (1) the message of the right conjunct is that Sally likes pears; she did not - for example - steal them. Hence, somehow missing elements are retrieved. The question is what neural correlates constitute the resolution process. Using syntactic and semantic variables in several experiments in both the visual and auditory domain we will try to establish this.

This project is funded by an NWO 'PhD in the Humanities'-grant.

A psycholinguistic model for phonological development

babylabPhD student: Margarita Gulian
Supervisors: Claartje Levelt and Niels O. Schiller 

In my research I investigate the acquisition of onset cluster words like the word trein (train) by two-year-old Dutch children. In this I pay attention to both production and perception of onset clusters. So far I have found that in production children leave acoustic traces in their reduced cluster words. This is when they say tein for trein, koop for knoop (button) and choen for schoen (schoe). Regarding their perception, I have found that two-year-olds have trouble perceiving the difference between a cluster word (trein) and a simplified form of this cluster word (tein) but they can perceive the difference between the simplified (choen) and the complex form (schoen). These findings are striking with respect to how they relate to the question of storage of complex onset words in the child mental lexicon. On the one hand, acoustic traces point to a more detailed specification of the stored word than suggested from the surface form (tein), on the other hand, the failure to perceive the difference between trein and tein points to a less specified stored form. In order to shed more light on this controversy another perception study is under development.

Grammar induction: the influence of sample characteristics of the stimuli

grammarPhD student: Jun Lai
Supervisors: Fenna Poletiek and Niels O. Schiller

How do children acquire the highly complex grammatical rules of their language? Linguistic theories (Chomsky, 1980) claim that children master natural grammar by means of an inborn language device.

Empirical psychological studies and computational studies, however, have indicated that grammar induction could be achieved from experience (Reber 1967; Elman 1991). The latter indication was further supported by studies of statistical learning and information sampling.

In the present project we look at how simple sample characteristics of the linguistic stimulus environment might help inducing grammar knowledge. Using the traditional Artificial Grammar Learning paradigm (Reber, 1967), we manipulate aspects of the input sample, such as the ordering of the stimuli (Lai & Poletiek, 2011), their frequency distribution, and the sample size. Though the effect of such sample characteristics is theoretically very straightforward, as we show, it is the first time that these sample characteristics are systematically studied in AGL-experiments. Their effects shown in the context of artificial language, may contribute to the understanding of natural grammar acquisition occurring under similar input sample conditions.

Representation and processing of pitch in tonal languages

tonalPhD student: Jessie Nixon
Supervisors: Yiya Chen and Niels O. Schiller 

I work within the ERC project The representation and processing of pitch in tonal languages. My research focuses on how native speakers of Beijing Mandarin store lexical tone in the brain and access it during speech. Beijing Mandarin has four lexical tones. These tones distinguish between words in the same way that 'phonemes' (approximately letter-sized units of sound) do in other languages (e.g. cat versus bat in English; mao1 'cat' verses mao2 'reed' in Chinese).

I am investigating how abstract or specific our representations of speech sounds are. When we retrieve words from memory, how much detail is retained in our phonological (sound) representations of these words? Although we may not be aware of it, there is a huge amount of variation in the pronunciation of even a single word, due to factors such as speech rate, repetition, familiarity and context. This is also true of Mandarin tones. For example, the '3rd tone' is usually low; but when two 3rd tones occur together, the first has a rising contour.

So, how do speakers store this variability? Many early accounts proposed that words were stored as series of abstract 'phonemes'. This would suggest that Mandarin tones would be stored and processed in abstract representations of one of the four lexical tones. However, my latest experiments have shown that seeing printed words activates detailed acoustic representations of tone. Ongoing experiments will examine whether there is also an abstract level of representation. In addition, electrophysiological methods will be used to investigate exactly when each of the various levels of representation is activated.

MODOMA: A Computer-Simulated Laboratory-Approach towards Language Acquisition

modomaPhD student: David Shakouri
Supervisors: Crit Cremers, Claartje Levelt and Niels O. Schiller

The goal of the MODOMA-project is to create a computer model of language acquisition. The resulting computer program sets out to construct linguistic knowledge (e.g. lexical and/or grammatical information) when presented with utterances such as sentences. MODOMA is an acronym for Moeder-Dochter-Machine (Dutch for: "Mother-Daughter-Machine"). A MODOMA is a language acquisition automaton. Acquisition is a result of an ongoing and online interaction between two conversation partners: a mother- and a daughter-entity. The mother-entity will be based on Delilah, the Leiden parser and generator of Dutch, whereas the daughter entity sets out to acquire the mother language grammar in the course of interaction. An online demo-version of Delilah can be found at:

This project will provide a language acquisition lab to researchers. The process and results are reproducible, measurable and verifiable. The architecture of the program will be completely parametrized: researchers are given control of the configuration for a particular experiment. On the other hand, a lab entails a simplification of reality as the daughter is acquiring language in a controlled interaction space instead of the real world. Therefore, this project will provide a research tool for future studies into language acquisition. One of the advantages of a computer model is that it enables experiments that would be impossible to do with human subjects. Currently, a test program based on the same principles and the same architecture has successfully been developed. This program sets out to acquire a small grammar of subject and object morphology when presented with texts. The MODOMA-project is funded by an NWO 'PhD in the Humanities'-grant.

Grapheme-to-phoneme conversion in first and second language reading aloud

muts1PhD student: Kalinka Timmer
Supervisors: Niels O. Schiller

I combine the fields of Psychology with Linguistics and the research methods that give us the opportunity to understand what happens in the brain (e.g. electroencephalography: EEG). My research interests are in the process of reading aloud, specifically the conversion of printed text ('orthography') into sounds ('phonology'). The use of EEG in addition to speech onset measures (RTs) to study reading aloud, gives the opportunity to look at processes before speech output.

I am interested in the similarities and differences in reading aloud of languages in this world (e.g. Dutch, English, Persian, Russian, and Spanish). The Persian language has the interesting feature that 3 out of 6 vowels are not written. These words are read slower than words where all the vowels are written, because for the former you need to know the meaning of the word before you can pronounce it. However, EEG reveals that the early processes of both word types are the same. Another interest of mine is bilingualism. I have found that Dutch natives with English as a second language are very similar to native speakers of English in terms of converting written text into speech. In another experiment Dutch natives read Dutch words aloud (e.g. KNOOP) very briefly preceded by an English word (e.g. 'knee') that was not consciously perceived. Even thought they were in a monolingual Dutch environment, they still read the English word as an English word (pronouncing 'knee' with /n/) and not as a Dutch nonword (pronouncing 'knee' with /kn/). This suggests that not only a person's primary language (Dutch, in this case) can influence his secondary language (English), but that the opposite is also possible.