Current Projects

SSHRC Insight Development Grant (2015-2017)

Exploring Speech Sound Representations: Features and Categories in Monolingual and Bilingual Speakers

Summary: Language is a remarkable and uniquely human capacity, and speech sounds are its core building blocks. Studying how these sounds are represented in the mind provides a terrific window into what it means to be human. This project plans four experiments that address the questions: Does the human mind represent speech sounds in terms of natural classes? And how does knowing multiple languages change these representations?

Linguistic research has discovered that speech sounds are composed of smaller units, called features. These features describe a sound’s acoustic and articulatory properties and explain why sets of similar sounds, called natural classes, pattern together in language. Features and natural classes have existed since the beginnings of linguistic analysis, while research in cognitive psychology has cast doubt on their reality. Given the important role these ideas play in how we analyse language, it is critical to know whether perception and the brain support their existence. One behavioural and two brain imaging experiments are planned. Integrating linguistic analysis with brain imaging methods improves our knowledge of the relation between the mind and brain, with mutual benefit to both linguistics and cognitive neuroscience and the promise to solve long-standing questions that remain unanswered using traditional linguistic methods. Likewise, even less is known about how bilingual speakers, an ever-increasing percentage of the Canadian population, represent the sound systems of their two languages. One brain imaging study is planned to address this issue. Studying the multilingual mind allows us to pose questions that we could not otherwise ask. These findings have implications for understanding how bilingual speakers represent sounds in their two languages, which is currently unknown, as well as the language system more generally.

More broadly, this work attempts to bridge linguistics with cognitive psychology and neuroscience. All three fields are inherently inter-disciplinary and have related ultimate aims, yet advances in one discipline rarely inform research in another. Using cognitive psychology and neuroscience methods to ask linguistically relevant questions makes the findings from the current proposal relevant not just to linguists, but also psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists.