A doctoral thesis will study the cognitive processing of relative clauses in depth
Cristina G. Pedraz/DICYT The SinCom (Sintaxis Comunicativa) Research Group of the Universidad de León (ULE), which is attached to the Department of Hispanic and Classical Philology, is working on a line of research concentrating on Psycholinguistics, a bridge discipline between Linguistics and Psychology, the main aim of which is the study of how the brain acquires and processes a capacity as important as language.
One of the researchers of the Group, Esther Álvarez García, is currently engaged on her doctoral thesis on the processing of relative clauses and more particularly the simplification that seems to be occurring in the system of relatives in Spanish. The study is being supervised by Salvador Gutiérrez Ordóñez, the Professor of General Linguistics of the ULE, a member of the Spanish Royal Academy (Real Academia Española, RAE) and the director of the SinCom, together with José Manuel Igoa González, a lecturer at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) and an expert on Psycholinguistics and in particular on the study of the syntactic process.
As Esther Álvarez García explains, “language allows us to communicate all kinds of information from the simplest and most basic concept to the most complex theory, and all this based on the simple combination of a few phonemes (24 in the case of Spanish). Likewise part of our physical and mental development involves a good acquisition of this linguistic capacity”.
Given this importance the researcher wonders what makes human language so special. “One of the answers to this question lies in the way in which our brain uses this capacity. Language is generally described as an automatic and unconscious capacity. Psycholinguistics aims to turn these unconscious processes into something conscious in order to understand how we human beings can communicate so efficiently by means of a system that seems so simple”, she adds.
The main objective of her doctoral thesis is to study a specific aspect within the field of Psycholinguistics, the cognitive processing of relative clauses. Several authors have postulated from a linguistic perspective that nowadays the system of relatives in Spanish is undergoing a simplification. “This phenomenon consists of using the pronoun que to the detriment of other relatives (cual, cuyo, quien, donde, cuando, etc.), which seem to be in danger of extinction” Álvarez García tells us.
However, no cause or explanation for this simplification has yet been suggested. The thesis attempts to seek this cause in the field of syntactic processing. “In other words, we are trying to determine whether our brain processes these relatives differently and if this therefore justifies this simplification in favour of the pronoun que. The results that we obtain can give us information on two essential aspects: on the one hand, on how the cognitive processing of the clauses occurs, and specifically on which is the linguistic information that intervenes in this process and how it interacts. On the other hand it can also give us information on whether cognitive processes influence the changes in a language, and if appropriate on what is the role being played by these processes”, she adds.
Two main parts
To clarify this dilemma, the thesis project consists of two major parts. The first is descriptive in nature and its objective is to study and confirm the phenomenon of the simplification of the system of relatives in Spanish so as to overcome a series of limitations and problems detected in previous studies.
The second and empirical part consists of putting a series of experiments into practice. For the moment behavioural techniques are being used to measure reaction times. Depending on the results obtained, it is hoped to be able to use other techniques such as the recording of eye movements or of brain potential. “The reason why we use these techniques is because it allows us to obtain empirical proof of the cognitive processes that take place in our mind, and based on them to infer how this processing works”, the PhD student points out.
First part, completed
The first part of the project has already been completed. The corpus study has shown that the simplification of the system of relatives “does not appear to be a homogeneous phenomenon; on the contrary it affects certain relatives more while others do not seem to be affected”. Likewise a diachronic analysis has been carried out of the frequency of the use of relatives from the 1950s to date and the results of this analysis coincide with those previously obtained. “Not all relatives seem to have seen their frequency of use diminish significantly, and those that are being used significantly less often are the ones that are synchronically replaced more frequently by the pronoun que”.
The psycholinguistic experiments were designed and put into practice as from these initial results. The researcher hopes to demonstrate that one of the reasons for the simplification of the relatives is their cognitive processing. “We are trying to determine whether there are differences in the processing of the relatives, to be precise whether certain relatives are easier to process in our minds than others; this could be one of the reasons for this simplification. The results obtained may reveal not only the reason for the simplification; they may also give us clues to the linguistic information that our brains have access to during the processing of language”, she concludes.
The research project was initiated eighteen months ago and was awarded a University Teacher Training (Formación de Profesorado Universitario, FPU) grant from the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports in 2014. The first results were presented at the XXIX International Congress of the Young Linguists' Association that was held from 3rd to 5th September 2014 at the University of Murcia.