How words jump over the language wall

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Psychology


Psychologists and Linguists are beginning to acknowledge the scale of interactivity between human cognition and language, a phenomenon best exemplified by the subtle differences in word meaning across languages. This PhD project seeks to understand the extent to which lexical properties in a particular language can activate equivalent properties in another, and how they shape the bilingual conceptual system. By studying (a) words that sound the same in English but not in Welsh, (b) compounds words that only exist in English, and (c) words that only exist in Welsh, we strive to attain a new understanding of how verbal representations affect the structure of the bilingual mind and the potential socio-cultural implications of cross-language differences.Linguistic relativity (Whorf, 1956) contends that variations between languages have differing specific effects on our conceptual makeup. Speakers of different languages may categorise and perceive objects differently due to the linguistic characteristics of their mother tongue. Various empirical studies support the notion that language influences cognitive processes in domains such as colour and object categorisation, emotion, cultural semantics, and decision-making. Further cross-language investigation needs to consider how words are encoded at different levels of representation and how linguistic variations, such as phonological overlap, semantic relatedness, and conceptual disparity contribute to the build-up of meaningful representations in bilinguals. The project will use event-related potentials (ERPs), a technique derived from electroencephalography, to examine the relationship between language representations and cognitive processes in both monolinguals and bilinguals at an implicit (unconscious) level. The experiments will involve semantic priming manipulations in behavioural tasks to bring out conceptual interference effects. We will use nonverbal visual stimuli to minimize trivial linguistic activation in bilinguals and rely on verbal interferences conditions to test for selectivity. Semantic judgments and other categorisation tasks used in previous research will reveal bilinguals' conscious construction of semantic concepts, whilst the N400, a peak of brain activity modulated by the difficulty in accessing stimulus meaning, will index implicit aspects of semantic processing.
We will seek new evidence of linguistic relativity effects in three domains:First, we will examine how phonological links within a language interfere with representations accessed from the other language by testing how two words that are homophonic in one language of the bilingual may be unduly related in their mind even though they are different words in their other language. Unveiling such an effect would reveal for the first time how cross-language activation shapes semantic representations in bilinguals, beyond the effects previously reported in monolinguals.
Second, we will examine whether concepts that are related through the existence of a compound in one language, such as 'straw' and 'berry' in English, also entertain such 'abnomal' links in the other language of bilinguals (e.g., the treanslation in Welsh of 'strawberry'- mefusen is not a compound). A semantic link between aeron - 'berry' and gwellt - 'straw' presented to a native speaker of Welsh, would thus indicate that the conceptual link existing in English naturally transfers to 'Welsh semantics'.Third, the PhD project will investigate the conceptual impact of words that only exist in one language and how such impact may be context-dependent. We will ask participants to indicate via button presses whether days of the week are one or two days previous to the current day of testing. In English monolinguals, we expect the response time to be larger for two-day gaps as compared to one-day gaps. In Welsh-English bilinguals, we expect the response time for two-day gaps in the past to be reduced as compared to two-day gaps in the


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P00069X/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1945848 Studentship ES/P00069X/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2020 Laurie Elizabeth Mortimore