The OWLIE project
In a joint project with Monique Flecken (also MPI) we target how language-specific semantics guide core language processing mechanisms (i.e. predictive sentence processing), as well as visual processing in nonlinguistic tasks. Our research focuses on a cross-linguistic contrast in the semantics of verbs describing locative states and caused motion (i.e., placement events), which by default encode the position of objects in Dutch and German, but not in, for example, French and English.
In a first study (van Bergen & Flecken, 2017) we examined anticipatory looks to objects in a display upon encountering placement verbs in sentences describing placement events in Dutch (e.g., De jongen zette/legde kort geleden een fles op de tafel ‘the boy put.STAND/put.LIE recently a bottle on the table’). We measured the extent to which people already started looking at the objects depicted on the screen (4 in total, see picture below) as soon as they heard the verb. We found that German second language (L2) users of Dutch anticipated objects that matched the verbally encoded position, i.e., they looked more often at the bottle in an upright position on the table, than the bottle that was lying on the table (similar to native Dutch listeners); a sample of equally proficient English and French L2 users of Dutch did not predict objects on the basis of verbal semantics. Findings could be attributed to the transfer of native language processing routines: German, like Dutch, encodes the position of objects in placement verbs (hinstellen/hinlegen). Given their lifetime of experience in attending to object position when describing placement events, the German L2 users of Dutch could process this information rapidly, and thus use it to already anticipate what object was going to be mentioned next.
In a second study (Flecken & van Bergen, in prep) we targeted the extent to which cross-linguistic diversity in verbal semantics biases visual processing in a nonlinguistic task. We contrasted Dutch and English native speakers on a picture-matching task, while their EEG was recorded. Participants saw pairs of pictures, each showing an object on a surface (e.g., a bottle on a table). Objects were rotated 90 degrees along the horizontal (standing/lying orientation) or the vertical (left/right orientation) axis. Event-related potentials show early increased attention to the position manipulation only in Dutch participants; this language effect on perception emerged within 200ms after stimulus presentation, before any verbal information could be lexically accessed.
In all, findings of the OWLIE project show that our native language strongly influences the way in which we process both verbal and nonverbal information. In the course of acquisition, processing routines are shaped and biased by the concepts encoded in that specific language; these routines are recruited by default in various tasks.