Syntactic Adaptation: An ERP Study

Sophia Paulitz

Authors:  Sophia Paulitz, Eleonora Mocevic, Haoyun Dai, Megan Nakamura, Dr. Edith Kaan

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Edith Kaan

College:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


When we listen or read, we adapt quickly to a speaker’s or writer’s language, e.g. accent or word choice, that is, we tailor how we process language. This is known as linguistic adaptation. This project investigates adaptation at the level of sentence structure. To this aim, we record EEG (brain waves) from native English speakers while first exposing them to one type of sentence, and then to sentences of another structure. By looking at EEG, we can see if and how readers adapt. More specifically, we first present sentences (word-by-word) of the type “The customer drank a soda and a hamburger,” in which word “hamburger” does not make sense. Such anomalies are associated with an N400 brain wave component. We then expose readers to sentences of the type “The customer drank a soda and a hamburger was placed in front of him,” in which the word “hamburger” is no longer anomalous. If readers adapt to the sentence structure, “hamburger” should no longer elicit an N400. Preliminary results suggest that our predictions are borne out. This research will broaden our understanding of how humans dynamically adapt to variation in the language surrounding them, and to changing contexts in general.

Poster Pitch

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8 Responses
  1. Sophia Paulitz

    Hello everyone! Thank you for visiting my page! If you have any questions, feel free to comment them below. During the first half of the symposium, I found that if I kept clicking submit, after a few times my comment would post. 🙂 If it appears that this is not working, I will post a link to a zoom conference where I will answer your questions. I hope you find this research informative and enjoy the symposium!

  2. Ashley Jenkins

    Hi Sophia!
    Great presentation! It is interesting to see that your predictions carried out in block 1 and 2, but not in block 3. Why do you think that might be, and what would you propose to do for future research in order to study this more?

  3. Sophia Paulitz

    Hi Ashley!
    Great question! As of now, we cannot definitively say the cause of this, but I suspect it has to do with the way we learn. Block 1 showed participants the difference between plausible and implausible sentences in a clear way. Block 2 then showed participants how both types of those sentences can be made plausible, even if it is a bit awkward-sounding. Block 3 then reintroduced the previous sentence structure after they had adjusted to the one in block 2 which involved the conjoining of two independent clauses. I suspect this demonstrates the recency effect and our capacity to overlearn in short amounts of time. Before the first block, participants used their previous knowledge of grammar as a basis for what is correct. Throughout the study, the previous block may have impacted their idea of grammar as they were introduced to a new sentence structure. However, this is all theoretical. Going forth, we plan on running more participants and analyzing time-frequency representations as well as neural connectivity. This hopefully will provide us with more information as, due to our knowledge, no study has used time-frequency analyses to investigate syntactic adaptation and its underlying processes. Thank you for your question!