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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


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Language Processing is Like Watching Scary Movies

By: Mia Daucourt

Real time language processing is anticipatory in nature. Just like when we try to predict the ending while we are watching a scary movie, when we are listening to or reading something, we are constantly considering alternative endings to the stream of language. Usually, we are pretty good guessers, even when the outcome is surprising. However, our guessing ability depends a lot on our amount and degree of exposure to language growing up. How many different words did we hear, and in which contexts did we hear them used? Those who were exposed to more words and experienced words in richer, more varied language contexts are more likely to become better guessers. For example, a lot of rich language exposure comes from reading books. Books utilize more sophisticated language than what is spoken day to day and are also likely to include more uncommon words, providing varied language experience isn’t likely to be found elsewhere. Therefore, those who read more growing up, either through shared reading with their parents or on their own, are more likely to have had richer, more varied language exposure and grow up to be better guessers.

In the context of scary movies, the more movies you see, the more likely you are to know exactly what is coming for the movie’s ending. Chances are, you have either already seen the scary movie you come across, or you have seen the endings of enough scary movies to have a whole store of possible endings to pull from. On the other hand, if you had only ever seen one scary movie, you would be likely to encounter a lot of scary movies you have never seen before and to have a harder time guessing what will happen, because you only have one reference to draw from. You may assume that all scary movies follow the same pattern and end the same way, or even if you are open to more possible endings and storylines, you have no other movies to use as a reference to predict what might happen. In this way, like experience with many scary movies, previous exposure to the many possibilities of language, makes you a better guesser and better able to process language it in real-time.

Differences in early language exposure have been linked to differences in socioeconomic status (SES). In fact, a landmark study by Hart & Risley (1995) showed that children from low-SES backgrounds, who typically have less available resources, are exposed to about one-third of the words as children from high SES backgrounds. Low SES children also tend to encounter less books and print, making the language input they do get less diverse overall. Thus, differences in SES may also contribute to differences in real-time language processing ability, or how good of a guesser you are when you hear or read words. Low SES children may be worse guessers, take longer to guess, and come up with less guesses overall than those from high SES backgrounds. In order to explore the link between SES and real-time language processing, Troyer and Borovsky (2017) conducted two experiments in which they tested whether real-time language processing was different in college students from low- versus high-SES backgrounds.

In order to figure out what their study participants were anticipating during language processing the researchers had to get creative. They couldn’t just see into their participants’ thoughts while their participants processed language, so the researchers set up an experimental design that used pictures and eye tracking to capture mental processes that could not be directly observed. The trials started with participants being read a sentence, while they were looking through an eye tracker, and four different images were presented to them on a screen. Whichever image the participant fixated on at different periods in time while being read the prompt(s) provided some information about what the participant was guessing, in real-time, would be a part of the sentence being read (i.e., during real-time language processing). In all cases, three of the four images were related to the prompt in some way, and one image was completely random. For example, with the verbal prompt, “The pirate chased the ship,” the four images presented included a ship (a noun that is closely related to, and would be semantically categorized with, the word pirate), a treasure chest (another noun closely associated with pirate but that did not actually appear in the sentence), a cat (a noun that has nothing to do with pirates but may be expected based on the word “chase” because cats often chase things), and bones (a noun completely unrelated to pirates or chasing).

The researchers found that individuals from higher SES backgrounds appeared to show relatively greater activation for unexpected items that cohered with the local semantic content. What does that mean? High SES participants had more relevant guesses available. When they saw the words “pirate” and “chased” they immediately anticipated any word related to pirates or chasing to come up. They had more experience to pull from, so when the prompt was read to them, they were more aware of potential associations between words. This is incredibly useful during language processing. By having diverse expectations and understanding the many potential links between words, and thus, anticipating various potential sentence endings, you are quicker and more prepared to adapt your language processing in real-time. If something violates one expectation, you have another one ready to grab from. You are more adaptable when processing language.

Overall, these findings support the importance of being exposed to a large breadth and depth of language early on. For young children, book and print exposure is key to becoming language good guessers and efficient language processers. Many children that come from low SES backgrounds may be at a disadvantage when it comes to language exposure. As such, it is especially important to create and provide support mechanisms and additional resources to help make up for any disadvantages children from low SES backgrounds may experience, in order to make sure they are able to achieve high levels of language functioning in their later years. You may not want your kids to watch a lot of scary movies, but making sure they get lots of rich language exposure is vital!

Troyer, M., & Borovsky, A. (2017). Maternal socioeconomic status influences the range of expectations during language comprehension in adulthood. Cognitive Science, 41, 1405-1433.