Department of Psycholinguistics, Neurolinguistics and Sociolinguistics
Chair: Zoltán Bánréti, Senior Research Fellow
Secretary: Katalin Jancsó
Phone: (36-1) 3214-830/117
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The department was created in 2001 as a result of extending the research profile of the Department of Applied Linguistics.
The three fast developing subfields investigated by the researchers at the department are all located at the interfaces between several disciplines. These include the following:
1. Neurolinguistics, which is located at the interface between linguistics, neurology and psychology. The basic questions investigated include the following: What is the structure of the representation of grammar in the brain? What is the relation between the modules of grammar (lexicon, syntax, phonology) and the structure of the brain? What are the characteristics of the neuropsychological mechanisms that activate the grammatical representations for the processes of speech production and understanding? What enables us to use the grammar offering a theoretically unbounded number of combinational possibilities when the human working memory has only a limited capacity?
Different approaches and methods are applicable in our research. One of them is the experimental linguistic approach, which consists in the analysis of the linguistic performance of healthy persons in experimental situations. For this we apply electrophysiological methods, like measuring the bioelectronic potential of different parts of the cortex of the brain, or modern computational devices and programs. The latter include recordings by a computer tomograph (CT), positron emission tomography examinations, and other, so-called picture-generating processes, which can help locating what parts of the brain are activated at various time points during the performance of verbal tasks.
The other approach consists in the examination of patients who suffer from local injury or other type of damage to certain cortical or sub-cortical structures due to brain vascular disease or traumatic injury of the brain. Depending on the location and extension of the brain injury, the language use by the patient shows selective impairment, which extends, for example, to the processes of combining speech sounds, inflected word forms, or phrases into sentence structures, or to those involved in understanding the meaning of sentences, or the processing of sentences on the basis of their syntactic structure, the lexical units they are composed of, and their phonetic form.
Such acquired disorders, so-called aphasias, constitute a specific research field within neurolinguistics. Its basic method consists of the analysis of linguistic errors appearing in production, comprehension and judgment tests and in analyzed spontaneous speech. At the department, linguistic error analysis is mostly done in the framework of generative grammar, and is centred around the distinction between possible and impossible error types. Thus, the data not only serve to discriminate between particular types of aphasia but can also be used to test the validity of different views on the architecture of grammar, i.e., by showing whether the distribution of grammatical and ungrammatical linguistic data by the aphasic test persons follows the predictions of a certain model of grammar or not.
The generative models of grammar provide the steps and components of the process of generating sentence representations. It can be investigated whether the distribution of the errors and unimpaired functions produced by the experimental person follow the predictions arising from the architecture of the model. The term ‘possible’ error type refers to the fact that certain damage to the architecture modelled is compatible with the error type in question, whereas ‘impossible’ error types are those which are excluded in view of certain assumptions about the architecture of grammar.
Part of the research is carried out in conjunction with the research group under the direction of Valéria Csépe at the Research Institute for Psychology of HAS, in the framework of project No. 054 of the National Scientific Development Program (NKFP), named Linguistic, neuropsychological, and experimental psychophysiological investigations of mental grammar.
2. The discipline called psycholinguistics primarily investigates the psychological processes underlying linguistic behaviour. The most important and most general questions asked by it are the following: How do we acquire our native tongue? What makes it possible for us to identify as speech, break down into words, and understand what others say? What happens in our minds when we speak? In the course of the individual studies, the researchers naturally study specific topics and problems.
The research activities of one of our colleagues at the department are centred around a rare developmental disorder caused by genetic injury, called Williams syndrome, in close co-operation with the research group at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics led by Csaba Pléh. In spite of their mild to intermediate mental disability, and serious problems with spatial orientation, the patients suffering from the Williams-syndrom display surprisingly good linguistic abilities, which makes it possible to study the following questions: What level of linguistic competence can be achieved when the development of other cognitive abilities falls behind? The answer to this question could also provide information about the modularity and innateness of language.
In our investigations we thus want to find out what it is that works fine within language in patients exhibiting Williams syndrome and what is restricted. We also investigate what processes make it possible for patients having the Williams syndrome to have comparatively good linguistic abilities, which is not characteristic of patients with other types of mental impairment (e.g., Down’s syndrome). We have already looked at several types of linguistic abilities, including the use of regular and irregular inflectional morphemes, the understanding and production of spatial suffixes and post-positions, short-term verbal memory, vocabulary, the interpretation of pronouns, and the learning of words. The results obtained so far show that language acquisition can (also) be facilitated in patients with Williams syndrome by a good short-term verbal memory and by the recognition of the communicative intentions of others on the basis of certain pragmatic signals.
3 Research on languages spoken by the Roma communities
Within the study of Romani, the investigations of certain aspects of language use (e.g. styles of speech, mode of presentation, genres of speech) started to involve methods used in ethnography and anthropology from the middle of the 1980s onwards. In the Research Institute for Linguistics, Zita Réger’s (1944-2001) research on the linguistic socialization of Romani-Hungarian bilingual children partly represented this oral-ethnographic approach.
The Romani anthropological linguistic research pursued at the department at the moment studies linguistic data collected during a field work in a trilingual Roma community. One of the most important tasks is to investigate what the relation is between an important structural feature of the community under investigation, the status difference between the male and female members, the culture preserving this structure, and language use. The research aims to find an answer to the above questions through the analysis of certain Romani conversation strategies.
The functions of conversation routines and ritual formulae are analysed, as well as the rules regulating their uses in different speech situations, e.g., at open gatherings of males, or in less formal conversations between members of the opposite sexes. Routine formulae play an important role in Romani linguistic repertoire, because since several speech acts can be carried out by using them appropriately, either as conventional linguistic devices of strategic politeness, or in the generation and maintenance of the social relations between the participants of the interaction. For example, they play an important role in the linguistic construction of the Romany concept of social gender.
We have started to produce a modern descriptive grammar of the Beash language, of which the chapters on phonology and morphology will be ready first. These contain the description of the regularities of consonant- and vowel-alternations, of the forms and the inflectional classes of the Beash verb, as well as of the forms of nominals.
Our anthropolinguistic research concentrates on the investigation of the state of the various linguistic subgroups of the Roma minority in Hungary and on the analysis of the attitudes to language underlying the sociological studies on the linguistic stratification of the Roma minority. The study of the mechanisms and aspects of language shift and language retrieval, as well as the possibilities for influencing these processes constitute important research tasks. With the help of studying two groups of Roma we investigate to what extent communities speaking the Lovari dialect of Romani can retain their ethnocultural-linguistic features in relatively closed versus non-closed communities (where the Roma live among non-Roma) We analyze what factors support language shift and what ones support language retrieval in Romani communities.
Most important research projects
Joint research with the Psychophysiological Group at the Research Institute for Psychology of HAS: Linguistic, neuropsychological, and experimental psychophysiological investigations of mental grammar (Project No. 5/054/2001 of the National Scientific Development Program, NKFP). Head of the consortium: Valéria Csépe. Participants: Zoltán Bánréti, Katalin Szentkuti-Kiss, Éva Mészáros, and Andrea Szalai.
Linguistic research of the Romany language (financed by the Fund for Social Studies Research of National Priority, OKTK). Participants: Zoltán Bánréti, Csilla Bartha, Anna Orsós, and Andrea Szalai.
Participation in the project Cognitive neuropsychological examination of linguistic and cognitive functions (National Scientific Research Fund, OTKA, T 034814, chief investigator: Csaba Pléh), and Plasticity of the cognitive and the nervous systems (National Research and Development Fund, NKFP, chief investigator: Csaba Pléh). Participant from the department: Ágnes Lukács.
Participation in the project Dimensions of linguistic otherness (National Research and Development Fund, NKFP 5/126/2001, chief investigator: Csilla Bartha). Participant from the department: Anna Orsós.