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Putting things in new places: your native language influences what you expect to hear in your second language

Languages differ in how they describe simple acts of placement, e.g., putting a cup of coffee on the table. The Dutch placement verb 'zetten' for example, characterizes objects as ‘standing’ (vertical orientation). Other languages leave this position feature unspecified. Van Bergen and Flecken, Neurobiology of Language department, show that when you are listening to descriptions of placement events in your second language, you make predictions about what you will hear based on your native language.
Putting things in new places: your native language influences what you expect to hear in your second language

In a recent eye-tracking study, MPI researchers Geertje van Bergen and Monique Flecken questioned to what extent language-specific positional information is used to anticipate words in your native or second language, when listening to speech and at the same time looking at images of objects. The paradigm was based on an essential study by Altmann & Kamide (1999) who found that the meaning of verbs is used as a cue to predict upcoming input. While people looked at a display with multiple objects, they listened to sentences like The boy will eat …. As soon as people heard the verb eat they started looking at edible objects in the display (like a cake) more than at inedible objects (such as a car). In other words, inedible objects were already excluded as possible continuations of the sentence on the basis of the restrictions of the verb.

Van Bergen and Flecken extended this finding to the domain of placement verbs, for which the restrictions differ from language to language. Besides a group of Dutch native listeners, they also tested two groups of second language (L2) users of Dutch. Both groups of L2 users were highly proficient in Dutch and showed proper understanding of the meaning of the Dutch placement verbs zetten and leggen. The difference between the groups was their mother tongue: one group spoke German as their native language, whereas the other group had an English or French native background.

The researchers performed three experiments, in which participants looked at displays with 4 objects placed on a surface (see Figure), while listening to Dutch sentences like de jongen zette kort geleden een fles op de tafel 'the boy put recently a bottle on the table'. They found that Dutch listeners looked more to 'standing' objects in the display immediately after hearing the verb zette, and more to 'lying' objects upon hearing legde.  German L2 users of Dutch (familiar with the positional distinction in placement verbs via their mother tongue) showed the same pattern of prediction as native Dutch participants. However, the French and English L2 participants (who know the Dutch placement verbs, but lack experience with the positional distinction in their native language) did not anticipate the position of objects upon hearing the verb.

Findings show that your native language influences what you look at, even when you are listening to a second language. Your previous linguistic experiences thus affect core language and visual processing mechanisms.


Van Bergen, G., & Flecken, M. (2016). Putting things in new places: Linguistic experience modulates the predictive power of placement verb semantics. Journal of Memory and Language. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2016.05.003. (PDF)


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