The way brains process different dialects to be focus of new study

The researchers will use portable EEG equipment to measure the participants’ brain activity as they process different dialects. Credit: brain process Getty Images All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Bilingual brains use a complex system of strategies to process language, but less is known about whether those who speak several dialects of the same language use similar processes.

A new $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow a team of researchers — Janet van Hell, professor of psychology and linguistics at Penn State, and Abby Walker, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech University — to explore how people who speak two or more dialects, or bidialectals, process language.

Van Hell, who is also the co-director of Penn State's Center for Language Science, said the study will specifically explore both the behavioral responses and neurophysiological responses of bidialectal adults compared to those who only speak one dialect, or "monodialectals," as they listen to different dialects.

“We're curious about how context impacts how bidialectal listeners' brains process language,” van Hell said, “and will test the theory that they switch between a flexible but less efficient strategy when they're unsure about which dialect to expect, and a more focused and efficient strategy when they know which dialect to expect.”

To do this, the researchers will go into communities in South-Central Appalachia, where many residents have experience communicating in “mainstream” or “standard” American English as well as their local, Appalachian dialect.

Van Hell said this approach differs from other research that has been done on the subject, which has typically taken place in a university setting.

“If you’re only recruiting university students, your study sample is going to be restricted to a very specific group of people,” van Hell said. “Your results might end up being biased because not everyone from a given community is moving to a different area to attend university. A university student may have different language experiences, which in turn impact cognitive processes associated with comprehending different dialects, than someone who doesn’t attend university and remains in the local community, and we wanted to capture the full range of experiences.”

After recruiting participants, the researchers will visit them in their homes along with portable EEG equipment. Using this equipment to measure the participants’ brain activity, the researchers will present them with various video clips of people speaking to see how the participants react in a variety of scenarios.

For example, the researchers may inform the participant that they’re about to hear an Appalachian speaker speak in an Appalachian dialect so they can observe what happens when the participant knows which dialect to expect. Or, they might only tell the participant they’re about to hear an Appalachian speaker, so they don’t know whether to expect an Appalachian dialect or standard English. In this scenario, the researchers can see what happens in the brain when the participant doesn’t know which dialect to expect.

“The effects that long-term exposure to different dialects has on listeners’ cognition has implications for understanding how listeners process language variation in general,” the researchers said. “By combining behavioral and brain activity measures, the project will provide foundational insights on the cognitive and neural bases of bidialectal communication.”

Van Hell said she hopes that in addition to providing more information about how people process multiple dialects, the study can also help destigmatize Appalachian dialects.

“People who speak stigmatized dialects like the ones spoken in Appalachia can experience a whole range of negative effects,” van Hell said. “We’re hoping that by bringing interest and attention to the subject, we can help destigmatize and showcase the beauty of linguistic diversity and the fact that within the United States we have so many different varieties of language that together make this American community.”

Last Updated September 20, 2021