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The Levinson Emerging Scholars Program

Elliot Collins - Psychology and Romance Linguistics

Daniel KashimaIn his first year as an undergraduate, Elliot developed a strong interest in language learning as he took Psychology and Linguistics classes while studying Italian. His experience in research prior to these classes eventually led him to the Cognitive Neuroscience of Language laboratory at the University of Washington. Since joining the lab 2 years ago, Elliot has worked alongside Professor Lee Osterhout and his graduate students to explore how the brain’s electrophysiological response changes as adults increased exposure to a second language. In his senior year, he will continue to explore some of the questions on language learning through the study of English native speakers learning Italian. Although he is still exploring the options, Elliot plans to enter a graduate or professional program where he can continue research in neuroscience beyond the undergraduate level.  He will graduate this spring with a B.A. in Romance Linguistics and a B.S. in Psychology through the departmental honors program.

Mentor: Lee Osterhout, Psychology

Project Title: Neurobiology of Language Learning

Abstract: Event-related potentials (ERPs) are variations in brain activity measured by changes in voltage over time on the scalp. ERPs reflect the summed activity of cortical pyramidal neurons in response to a given stimulus. Although localizing the sources of an ERP signal is problematic, we propose a method for using a measure of ERP additivity to determine whether individual stimulus parameters are processed by overlapping or independent neural sources. Applying this method to language will allow us to describe the functional segregation of linguistic processing in the brain, and compare hypothetical rules of grammatical structure to those which are neurally instantiated. Additive methodologies suggest that the degree to which the mathematical sum of the waveforms resulting from a single violation approximates the waveform from the double violation indicates the independence of neurocognitive resources engaged in the processing of the respective feature. In native speakers, grammatical anomalies elicit positive deflections of the ERP waveform, peaking approximately 600ms after the onset of the stimulus. In order to further examine whether the processing of multiple types of syntactic anomalies is the result of independent or overlapping neural generators, ERPs will be recorded from native Italian speakers and native English speakers learning Italian as they read sentences, a subset of which contained article-noun pairs which were ill-formed with respect to syntactic agreement. This paradigm allows for the direct comparison of neural responses to number and gender features within a single stimulus. We propose to expand this research by exploring the neural dynamics that occur when a second language is acquired. Our additivity paradigm will make it possible to evaluate not only when rules become syntactically realized, but also whether different syntactic features are encoded individually or as a whole.