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The Comprehension Department

The Comprehension Department

The Comprehension Deaprtment was headed by Anne Cutler from 1993 until 2013. The group focused on the comprehension of spoken language and how this process is affected by phonological structure of the native language. Research within the department was organized in the projects "Phonological Structure in Comprehension" and "Spoken-word Recognition" (1993-2000), and "Decoding Continuous Speech" and "Phonological Learning for Speech Perception" (2001-2008); from 2009 on, most of the work of the department contributed to the project "Mechanisms and Representations in Comprehending Speech"(MaRCS).

Anne Cutler's book Native Listening (MIT Press, 2012) covers inter alia almost all of the group's work across this twenty-year period.

Finding word boundaries in fluent speech

The group is well known for its work on speech segmentation, leading to the formulation of the Possible Word Constraint and the development of models of spoken-word comprehension (Shortlist B) based on realistic input derived from a large scale phonetic perception study. headed by Roel Smits and Natasha Warner. Based on the principle that language processing must involve cross-language comparison (Eentaalpsychologie is geen taalpsychologie), this work has involved many languages, including not only spoken languages of Western Europe and Asia, but also Slovak, British Sign Language, Berber, and Sesotho (a Bantu language).

Infant speech perception

With the Spinoza Price for Anne Cutler in 1999, the first infant speech perception lab in the Netherlands was founded. This lab was first headed by Dan Swingley and later by Elizabeth Johnson. Ground breaking findings include the amazing phonetic detail in infants' representations of their first words and the importance of early life experience in the development of speaker recognition, toddlers' ability to rapidly adapt to different accents, and the relationship of infants' ability to segment speech into words to their later language performance.

Flexibility of phonetic categories

Phonological learning is, however, not over after infancy. The group has shown that adults remain the ability to flexibly adjust the phonetic categories of their native language. This ability argues for the reality of pre-lexical segment-size units, which in turn activate more abstract lexical representations. This perceptual-learning process has been investigated intensively, leading, for instance, to the discovery that subtitles can aid second-language acquisition.

Second language speech perception

Despite such help, second language speech perception, however, remains disadvantaged in comparison with native speech perception, especially in challenging situations. Listeners' native categories and phonotactic knowledge interfere with the acquisition of another phonology.

Prosody in spoken-word recognition

Phonological learning is also not restricted to the segmental inventory of the native language. Prosody contributes to spoken word recognition as well. Listeners are able to use prosodic information to locate word boundaries and distinguish one- vs. two syllable words. This knowledge is also  applied to previously unknown words, again, arguing for abstraction in the mental lexicon.

Perception of casual speech

A focus that was especially apparent in the second decade of the Comprehension group was the perception of casual speech (also known as "chit chat"). This form of speech is peppered with reductions, so that the word eigenlijk (Engl., 'actually') can sound just like eik. Such extremely reduced word forms require sentence context to be recognized. Milder forms of reduction, such as /t/ reduction, can at least partly be perceptually restored on a pre-lexical level.


List of former staff members


Harald Baayen (University of Tübingen, Germany)

Bettina Braun (University of Konstanz, Germany)

Mirjam Broersma (Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

Taehong Cho (Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea)

Ino d'Arcais (University of Paduva, now retired)

Delphine Dahan (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA)

Mirjam Ernestus (Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

Falk Huettig (MPI Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

Elizabeth Johnson (University of Toronto Mississauga, Toronto, Canada)

Cecile Kuijpers (Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

James McQueen (Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

Holger Mitterer (University of Malta, Msida, Malta)

Roel Smits (Eindhoven)

Dan Swingley (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia,  USA)

Wilma van Donselaar (Netherlands Genomics Initiative, Den Haag, The Netherlands)

Natasha Warner (University of Arizona, Tuscon, AZ, USA)

Postdoctoral postions have been held by:

Alexandra Jesse (UMass Amherst, USA),Kristin Lemhöfer (Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands), Lalita Murty (University of York, UK), Christophe Pallier (INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit), Elsa Spinelli (University of Grenoble, France), Lara Tagliapetra, Jos Van Berkum (Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands)


The following dissertations were completed in the Comprehension Group
All dissertations appeared in the MPI dissertation series and may be requested from the MPI library.

The open-/closed-class distinction in spoken-word recognition
Alette Haveman
Comparative intonational phonology: English and German
Esther Grabe
Language input for word discovery
Joost van de Weijer
From speech to words
Arie van der Lugt
Language specific listening: The case of phonetic sequences
Andrea Weber
Morphology in speech comprehension
Kerstin Mauth
Perceptual relevance of prevoicing in Dutch
Petra M. van Alphen
Prosodically-conditioned detail in the recognition of spoken words
Anne Pier Salverda
Phonetic and lexical processing in a second language
Mirjam Broersma
Lexically-guided perceptual learning in speech processing
Frank Eisner
Sensitivity to detailed acoustic information in word recognition
Keren B. Shatzman
The acquisition of phonological structure: Distinguishing contrastive from non-contrastive variation
Christiane Dietrich
The acquisition of auditory categories
Martijn Goudbeek
Continuous-speech segmentation at the beginning of language acquisition: Electrophysiological evidence
Valesca Kooijman
Phoneme inventories and patterns of speech sound perception
Anita Wagner
Prosodic structure in speech perception and production
Claudia Kuzla
Processing the fine temporal structure of spoken words
Eva Reinisch
Processing strongly reduced forms in casual speech
Susanne Brouwer
Processing casual speech in native and non-native language
Annelie Tuinman
The role of acoustic detail and context in the comprehension of reduced pronunciation variants
Marco van de Ven
The relevance of early word recognition: Insights from the infant brain
Caroline Junge
Adjusting to different speakers: Extrinsic normalization in vowel perception
Matthias Sjerps
Who is talking?
Attila Andics

Last checked 2016-04-07 by Rian Zondervan

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