Photo illustration by Christine Hipp and Sal Ingram
Photo illustration by Christine Hipp and Sal Ingram

In the 500 milliseconds it took you to read “in the” at the start of this sentence, you formed a rough subconscious prediction that this sentence would feature one comma and two clauses.

This is not magic. You are not exercising psychic powers. Welcome to the field of psycholinguistics.

UC Santa Cruz linguistics professors Matthew Wagers and Sandra Chung were recently awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to do research on sentence structure comprehension. The three-year grant starts April 1.

Wagers and Chung will work with educator and author Manuel F. Borja in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Their research will focus on the endangered Chamorro language, spoken in the Mariana Islands, and they will look into how humans pre-construct a sentence while listening to it before it is fully said.

City on a Hill Press sat down with Wagers and Chung for a question and answer session. Topics included the psychological processes of listening and speaking, and the cultural richness in all languages.

City on a Hill Press: What are your backgrounds in the field of linguistics?

Matthew Wagers: We’re both theoretical linguists, we’re both interested in how structure can vary across languages and how the structure of language tells us something about the mind. My specific area of research is psycholinguistics, which has to do with language comprehension and language production, meaning listening, reading and speaking.

Sandra Chung: My field is syntax — I’m interested in the structure of sentences across languages. I’ve been working on the Chamorro language since the mid-1970s. Given [that] it’s endangered, increased documentation could ultimately help the community maintain the language or revive it.

CHP: What are the main goals of this research?

Wagers: Most research in language comprehension is done on English, German, French, Japanese and Chinese. Most [linguistic] studies are done in a university [setting], on students who are 18–22. We want to address two worries: one, that we’re working with such a small slice of the world’s languages and two, that the techniques we have are so adapted to a particular type of person that maybe our scientific conclusions do not represent the whole picture. We want a general theory of the human mind and human language. To have a general theory, you have to sample appropriately.

CHP: Both types of your research focus on pre-forming sentence structure before it has been fully spoken. This seems relevant to the phenomenon of people being able to finish each other’s sentences. Is your research related to this phenomenon?

Wagers: That’s not a bad way of thinking about it. The rate of speech and understanding is so fast you do not wait until the end of the sentence to understand it. You develop understanding moment by moment. In a colloquial sense, that is sort of like finishing each other’s sentences, but more so in terms of structure, not content, and mentally not verbally. In our experiment there’s no dialogue, it’s individuals listening to sentences. One of the ways to understand anything is to simulate ways in which the other person might have made it — an analysis by synthesis theory. In a certain sense, it’s a more technical way of saying …

CHP: Finishing each other’s sentences?

Wagers: Yes.

CHP: What methods will your research use in the Northern Mariana Islands to track the mental processes going on in someone trying to understand a sentence?

Wagers: We use self-paced listening, where we’ll record whole sentences then splice them into phonological phrases. To hear the sentence as a whole you stitch it back together by successively pressing a response button, We analyze the time between button presses. The other technique is preferential looking. We take our laptop and play sentences that are normal and those that have anomalies like, ‘Which boy did you iron?’ Then we investigate, ‘When does that disruption occur for the listener?’ We take a video and work with a team of undergraduates here who go through the videos frame by frame. It’s an evolving snapshot of their opinion of the sentence.

CHP: How do the processes of understanding a spoken sentence differ from understanding a written sentence?

Wagers: Written and spoken materials differ in registers and styles of speech. Another difference is more psychological. If you’re reading a sentence, you don’t read one letter at a time, you read a whole word at a time. The rate in which you intake the information, not the rate exactly, but, the …

Chung: The rate at which it is presented.

Wagers: Correct. The rate it is presented is different. In speech you’re not just guessing at the word level, you’re also guessing at the syllable level.

CHP: What is the most interesting aspect of language for both of you?

Chung: I appreciate how all languages are equally rich. My goal is to use theories of sentence structure to make it clear to other scientists that smaller languages of the world have as much to reveal about how the mind works as English does.

Wagers: To me, it’s the fact that it puts together these familiar pieces in new ways each time. How can you have a theory that accounts for both the familiarity of language and the novelty of it? It’s a new thing each time.