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Chomsky was right: We do have a ‘grammar’ in our head, Brooklyn LettersA team of neuroscientists has found new support for MIT linguist Noam Chomsky’s decades-old theory that we possess an “internal grammar” that allows us to comprehend even nonsensical phrases.

“One of the foundational elements of Chomsky’s work is that we have a grammar in our head, which underlies our processing of language,” explains David Poeppel, the study’s senior researcher and a professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology. “Our neurophysiological findings support this theory: we make sense of strings of words because our brains combine words into constituents in a hierarchical manner–a process that reflects an ‘internal grammar’ mechanism.”

The research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, builds on Chomsky’s 1957 work, Syntactic Structures (1957). It posited that we can recognize a phrase such as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as both nonsensical and grammatically correct because we have an abstract knowledge base that allows us to make such distinctions even though the statistical relations between words are non-existent.

Neuroscientists and psychologists predominantly reject this viewpoint, contending that our comprehension does not result from an internal grammar; rather, it is based on both statistical calculations between words and sound cues to structure. That is, we know from experience how sentences should be properly constructed–a reservoir of information we employ upon hearing words and phrases. Many linguists, in contrast, argue that hierarchical structure building is a central feature of language processing.

Um diese Debatte zu beleuchten, untersuchten die Forscher, ob und wie sprachliche Einheiten während des Sprachverständnisses im Gehirn vertreten sind.

Zu diesem Zweck führten Poeppel, der auch Direktor des Max-Planck-Instituts für empirische Ästhetik in Frankfurt ist, und seine Kollegen eine Reihe von Experimenten mit der Magnetenzephalographie (MEG) durch, mit der die durch Gehirnaktivität erzeugten winzigen Magnetfelder und die Elektrokortikographie gemessen werden können (EKG), eine klinische Technik zur Messung der Gehirnaktivität bei Patienten, die auf Neurochirurgie überwacht werden.

The study’s subjects listened to sentences in both English and Mandarin Chinese in which the hierarchical structure between words, phrases, and sentences was dissociated from intonational speech cues–the rise and fall of the voice–as well as statistical word cues. The sentences were presented in an isochronous fashion–identical timing between words–and participants listened to both predictable sentences (e.g., “New York never sleeps,” “Coffee keeps me awake”), grammatically correct, but less predictable sentences (e.g., “Pink toys hurt girls”), or word lists (“eggs jelly pink awake”) and various other manipulated sequences.

The design allowed the researchers to isolate how the brain concurrently tracks different levels of linguistic abstraction–sequences of words (“furiously green sleep colorless”), phrases (“sleep furiously” “green ideas”), or sentences (“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”)–while removing intonational speech cues and statistical word information, which many say are necessary in building sentences.

Their results showed that the subjects’ brains distinctly tracked three components of the phrases they heard, reflecting a hierarchy in our neural processing of linguistic structures: words, phrases, and then sentences–at the same time.

“Because we went to great lengths to design experimental conditions that control for statistical or sound cue contributions to processing, our findings show that we must use the grammar in our head,” explains Poeppel. “Our brains lock onto every word before working to comprehend phrases and sentences. The dynamics reveal that we undergo a grammar-based construction in the processing of language.”

Dies ist aus Sicht der aktuellen Forschung eine kontroverse Schlussfolgerung, stellen die Forscher fest, da der Begriff des abstrakten, hierarchischen, grammatikalischen Strukturaufbaus eher unpopulär ist.

Quelle der Geschichte:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by New York University & Science Daily. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Nai Ding, Lucia Melloni, Hang Zhang, Xing Tian und David Poeppel. Kortikale Verfolgung hierarchischer Sprachstrukturen in verbundener Sprache. Nature Neuroscience, 2015; DOI: 10.1038 / nn.4186


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