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Neurophysiological responses to mixed noun phrases in speakers who codeswitch and don’t codeswitch

Neurophysiological responses to mixed noun phrases in speakers who codeswitch and don’t codeswitch
When: March 3, 2016
Where: University of Florida

Anne Beatty-Martínez, a 2015 PIRE fellow, has recently presented a poster at the 29th annual conference on human sentence processing.

Linguistic prediction allows individuals to link what comprehenders expect to hear with what speakers actually say. The Production-Distribution-Comprehension model (PDC; Gennari & MacDonald, 2009) states that listeners’ and readers’ sensitivity to distributional patterns in production can constrain the comprehension system. The PDC model inherently predicts variability among speakers who codeswitch and speakers who don’t codeswitch. We test this hypothesis at the neural level by examining the relationship between codeswitching production patterns and comprehension difficulty. Because exposure to codeswitching is predicted to impact comprehension, we recruited Spanish-English codeswitchers in the US and non-codeswitchers in Spain who were highly proficient in both languages. We focus on the production and comprehension of mixed noun phrases (mixed NPs; e.g., elM forkM). Evidence from naturalistic corpora suggests that bilinguals exhibit an overall preference for the masculine determiner (el), regardless of the noun’s gender in Spanish (Otheguy & Lapidus, 2003). In contrast, switches involving the feminine determiner (la) occur less frequently and are restricted to English nouns that are feminine in Spanish. To illustrate, el-codeswitches such as (elM forkM) and (elM spoonF) are extremely common. To a lesser extent, la-codeswitches involving feminine nouns (laF spoonF) have also been attested in bilingual speech, while those involving masculine nouns (*laF forkM) have not. We predicted that neurophysiological responses would reflect this asymmetry in codeswitchers but not in non-codeswitchers. Production was examined in a corpus of unscripted, taskoriented dialogues; comprehension was investigated in sentential contexts using event-related potentials. The same groups of bilinguals participated in the production and comprehension studies. As shown in Table 1, results for production show that proportions of noun phrase types (i.e., Spanish, English, or mixed NPs) differed across groups (X2 (2, N=6691) = 297.28, p<.000). Codeswitchers (N=14) produced more mixed NPs than non-codeswitchers (N=15) and these switches robustly reflected the aforementioned gender asymmetry. The ERP experiment showed that for bilinguals who codeswitch (N=15), switches consistent with attested distributional patterns were easier to process. This is reflected in the N400 response for less frequent compared to more frequent switches (see Figure 1). Crucially, no such effects were observed in non-codeswitchers (N=20). Our data suggest that individuals are highly sensitive to the constraints of their interactional context. In this way, converging evidence from codeswitching sheds light on how production choices speakers make can predict comprehension performance.