Neurocognition of speech comprehension in social context: speaker identity and listener experience

Project: Research project

Project Details


The Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences offers postdoctoral research fellowships to provide opportunities for recent doctoral graduates to obtain additional training, to gain research experience under the sponsorship of established scientists, and to broaden their scientific horizons beyond their undergraduate and graduate training. Postdoctoral fellowships are further designed to assist new scientists to direct their research efforts across traditional disciplinary lines and to avail themselves of unique research resources, sites, and facilities, including at foreign locations. This postdoctoral fellowship award supports a rising scholar at the intersection of Linguistics and Neuroscience. Worldwide, there are more multilingual than monolingual speakers and, by extension, more accented than non-accented speakers of English and many other world languages (e.g., Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic). Social psychology and sociolinguistic research suggests that foreign accent often leads to stigmatization and negative social biases. The majority of the world's speakers probably experience some type of stigmatization or stereotyping based on their non-standard accent. To improve intercultural interactions and global communication, better insights into how foreign accent affects comprehension, decision-making, and evaluation are needed. This research project addresses an important yet under-studied area of research in the neurocognition of language: the effects of speaker identity as a pragmatic social cue that influences language comprehension, and the impact of listener experience and attitudes on comprehension. Specifically, the project tests how foreign-accented speech impacts spoken language comprehension in four groups of listeners who differ in their prior experience with foreign-accented speakers: monolingual adult listeners, monolingual child listeners, and two groups of bilingual listeners (bilinguals with the same or a different foreign accent as the speaker). The interdisciplinary research project adds insight into the factors that underlie relationship-building among speakers and listeners from different language backgrounds, which is particularly important given that listeners tend to use language attitudes and cues, such as accent, to stereotype speakers' attributes and make decisions about them. This project informs cross-cultural communication, especially for education, business, law, judicial sectors, and health and welfare sectors, where professionals and clientele frequently interact with people from different language backgrounds who speak with non-standard accents. Ultimately, the outcomes of the research will contribute to decreasing the potentiation of social disparity and reducing the entrenchment of negative social biases. Because the project takes a socio-contextual approach in the brain-based study of language, it also contributes to bridging neuroscience research with applied fields, including education.

This research project is the first neurocognitive study on how foreign-accented speech impacts language comprehension in four groups of listeners who differ in their experience with foreign-accented speakers. The multi-disciplinary approach combines insights and methods from cognitive neuroscience, sociolinguistics, and developmental psychology to investigate the interplay of language attitudes, accented speech comprehension, and neural signatures of language processing. The research design uses Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) and analyses of neural oscillations to study the neural correlates of how listeners' experience with foreign-accented speech and language attitudes affect language comprehension. The project tests both child and adult listeners and yields important insights into the development of neuropragmatic sensitivity in language comprehension and introduces linguistic pragmatics into neuroscience research. Additionally, including two groups of bilingual listeners identifies neuropragmatic effects on spoken language comprehension in non-native listeners. This is crucial considering that the majority of the world's speakers are bi- or multilingual, making non-native listening a global social norm. Due to its interdisciplinary motivation and design, the project establishes the groundwork for future research on interactions among social, individual, and neurobiological factors in language and communication.

Effective start/end date7/1/1510/31/16


  • National Science Foundation: $199,988.00


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