Effects of structure and meaning on cortical tracking of linguistic units in naturalistic speech

Coopmans, C. W., De Hoop, H., Hagoort, P., & Martin, A. E. (2022). Effects of structure and meaning on cortical tracking of linguistic units in naturalistic speech. Neurobiology of Language, 3(3), 386-412. doi:10.1162/nol_a_00070.
Recent research has established that cortical activity “tracks” the presentation rate of syntactic phrases in continuous speech, even though phrases are abstract units that do not have direct correlates in the acoustic signal. We investigated whether cortical tracking of phrase structures is modulated by the extent to which these structures compositionally determine meaning. To this end, we recorded electroencephalography (EEG) of 38 native speakers who listened to naturally spoken Dutch stimuli in different conditions, which parametrically modulated the degree to which syntactic structure and lexical semantics determine sentence meaning. Tracking was quantified through mutual information between the EEG data and either the speech envelopes or abstract annotations of syntax, all of which were filtered in the frequency band corresponding to the presentation rate of phrases (1.1–2.1 Hz). Overall, these mutual information analyses showed stronger tracking of phrases in regular sentences than in stimuli whose lexical-syntactic content is reduced, but no consistent differences in tracking between sentences and stimuli that contain a combination of syntactic structure and lexical content. While there were no effects of compositional meaning on the degree of phrase-structure tracking, analyses of event-related potentials elicited by sentence-final words did reveal meaning-induced differences between conditions. Our findings suggest that cortical tracking of structure in sentences indexes the internal generation of this structure, a process that is modulated by the properties of its input, but not by the compositional interpretation of its output.
Additional information
supplementary information
Publication type
Journal article
Publication date

Share this page