Event-related Potential (ERP) studies of the role of working memory, selective attention, and attentional efficiency in language acquisition and comprehension.
Language researchers have long been interested in the extent to which performance factors play a central role in language use, and how these factors interact with linguistic representations of the competence grammar. Here I address this issue in three ERP experiments, investigating the role that domain-general neuro-cognitive systems play in language acquisition and comprehension.
In Experiment 1, I test the hypothesis that the formation of both long-distance syntactic dependencies and referential dependencies is underpinned by the same cognitive operations. I show that second elements in each dependency type elicit brain responses associated with the domain-general working memory system. Though the constraints on the formation of these two dependency types have traditionally been treated as distinct in the theoretical literature, I show that the same basic working memory processes are operative in each case. Nonetheless, subtle differences in the brain responses elicited are consistent with construction-specific properties of these dependencies as well.
In Experiment 2, I employ a traditional training-testing paradigm to show that selective attention plays a subtle, nuanced role in implicit language learning. After an hour of training, the brain showed domain-general responses consistent with implicit learning of grammatical systems unattended during training, though behavioral performance on judging the grammaticality of violations of these systems remained below chance, suggesting that the representations generated under brief implicit learning conditions are not sufficiently robust to influence behavior. I discuss these results in the context of studies of both implicit learning of non-linguistic information and those investigating second-language learning of grammatical and semantic information.
Lastly, in Experiment 3, I utilize a sentence-processing experiment and a task that measures attentional efficiency and show that the elicitation of early negativity (or eLAN) in sentence-processing contexts depends to a large degree on attentional efficiency, and therefore that these brain responses are not underlyingly linguistic, but should rather be interpreted as attentional modulations of domain-general N100 responses.
In general, I contend that the notion of “linguistic ERP components” may be misguided, and that what initially appear as language-specific responses should rather be interpreted as indices of domain-general cognitive systems operating over structured, statistically rich linguistic input.