Neurobiology of Language -
Language processing in a conversation context
All day long, your brain processes various forms of language. Even right now, for example, while you are reading this. But most often we use language to talk with others: in a conversation. However, most language researchers study language production and comprehension in a context that has nothing to do with conversation. This is strange, because there are many factors in a conversation that may influence the psychological and neural processes that enable us to produce or comprehend language.
In my thesis I focused on three important factors that play a role in conversation:
1) Taking part in a conversation means not only listening or speaking, but listening AND speaking. What you hear influences what you say next and what you say influences what you (expect to) hear. Although language production and language comprehension are often studied as individual processes, to get at a full understanding of how our brains process language, we must understand how production and comprehension influence each other.
2) Conversation in a social activity. Depending on who we are talking to and what kind of impression we want to make on that person, we adapt what we say and how we say it. For example, you talk differently when addressing the queen than when addressing a close friend.
3) In conversation, speakers are trying to communicate. In many language production experiments, participants are asked to describe pictures in an isolated, soundproof experiment room, without any communicative goal. However, we know that speakers sometimes adapt their speech to facilitate comprehension for their partner.
My thesis opens new doors towards language research in a social, communicative, conversation context. The experiments that are described in my dissertation show that controlled, systematic manipulations are possible in a context in which participants communicate with a partner. Furthermore, the results of my thesis show that the relationship between language and communication, as in a conversation, can only be understood when taking both aspects into account.
For a digital copy of Lotte Schoot's thesis, click