Futrell: How language gives your brain a break


August 11, 2015

CognitiveSciencePhDResearch

Here’s a quick task: Take a look at the sentences below and decide which is the most effective.

(1) “John threw out the old trash sitting in the kitchen.”

(2) “John threw the old trash sitting in the kitchen out.”

Either sentence is grammatically acceptable, but you probably found the first one to be more natural. Why? Perhaps because of the placement of the word “out,” which seems to fit better in the middle of this word sequence than the end. In technical terms, the first sentence has a shorter “dependency length” — a shorter total distance, in words, between the crucial elements of a sentence. Now a new study of 37 languages by three MIT researchers has shown that most languages move toward “dependency length minimization” (DLM) in practice. That means language users have a global preference for more locally grouped dependent words, whenever possible.

“People want words that are related to each other in a sentence to be close together,” says Richard Futrell, a PhD student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and a lead author of a new paper detailing the results. “There is this idea that the distance between grammatically related words in a sentence should be short, as a principle.” The paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests people modify language in this way because it makes things simpler for our minds — as speakers, listeners, and readers. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *