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Said David Cameron

How do our brains process the language that we hear? This is the kind of thing that is studied by associate professor Mikkel Wallentin from the Interacting Minds Centre. In his research he draws on his academic background in dramaturgy and cognitive semiotics, which he combines with brain scans.

He explains:

“Most of us find it harder to understand a sentence containing what’s known as inversion, which is when the subject comes after the verb or object. The standard word order is to start with the subject. For instance, our brains understand the words ‘David Cameron said’ more easily than the words ‘Said David Cameron’”.

But why is this so? And what does it tell us about the way in which the human brain understands language? Is there a specific word-order mechanism programmed into the brain, controlling the way we understand language? Or is the brain trained to expect one particular word order rather than another?

To find the answer, he has scanned the level of brain activity in people who are asked to understand sentences containing inversion. But in some cases the inversion occurred in a context in which it would be expected – in newspaper articles, for instance, where the use of inversion is common.

“Our brain scans showed that putting the subject before the verb is the easiest word order because this is what the brain is used to in most cases. But it’s all a question of context. Inversion is just as easy to understand as standard word order as long as it occurs in a context in which we expect it. We call this predictive coding. The brain simply produces statistics based on the language it has heard before, building up systems of linguistic expectations which form the basis of new ways to understand language.”

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Lektor Mikkel Wallentin
Telefon: 8716 3186