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Building Bridges Between Linguistics and Neuroscience

Linguist pursues interdisciplinary research with support of Mellon Foundation advanced training grant.

Building Bridges Between Linguistics and Neuroscience

Roumyana Pancheva is a scholar looking to expand her arsenal of research techniques.

The linguist has dedicated her career in large part to the study of syntax and semantics — the ways we combine words to form meaningful statements. Her work examines the breaking points in language, the mechanisms that make one phrase acceptable and the other just plain wrong.

Like many in her field, she sometimes compares grammatical mechanisms in English to those in a number of other languages. Born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, Pancheva specializes in Slavic and Balkan languages present and past. Most recently, with support from the National Science Foundation, she has studied extensively the grammar of Old Church Slavonic, the oldest recorded Slavic language and the predecessor to the modern Slavic languages of Eastern Europe.

But Pancheva, associate professor of linguistics and of Slavic languages and literatures in USC College, has identified a way to enrich her research.

She plans to employ techniques of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to investigate how language works.

“You can think of it as extending the boundaries of my research,” she said. “It’s a natural extension, really, since my colleagues and I approach language as a cognitive system.”

In fall 2007 Pancheva sought an advanced training grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This spring the foundation awarded her a New Directions Fellowship — funding to cultivate new skills in the study of how the brain makes language manifest.

The foundation’s support provides an exciting opportunity for Pancheva.

“The Mellon Foundation acknowledges the important fact that in order to extend your expertise into a neighboring field, you have to take some time off so that you can dedicate yourself to study,” she said.

This fall Pancheva is collaborating with scientists at the University of Maryland, College Park. There, she takes classes and works with faculty on neurolinguistic research, from initial experiment design through final data analysis.

She’s looking to take advantage of a unique setup at Maryland: a linguistics department that has facilities for both electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG). These fast imaging techniques reveal the dynamics of activity within the brain in real time by measuring electrical potentials and magnetic fields, respectively.

Using EEG and MEG, Pancheva hopes to gain insight into certain elements of language processing. She’s essentially adding new research tools and a new perspective to elucidate familiar questions.

“People sometimes talk about ‘extending the frontiers of a discipline,’ “ Pancheva said. “Thanks to the Mellon grant, this is really the case for me.”

One research question she is investigating involves what linguists describe as the weak-strong distinction between noun phrases.

Combinations like “most chairs” or “both chairs” would be labeled as strong, while “two chairs” or “a chair” would be weak.

The contrast between strong and weak noun phrases shows up in interesting ways, she explained. One might say, “There may be two chairs in the room,” which is perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, “There may be both chairs in the room” sounds wrong — even though “two chairs” and “both chairs” are very close in meaning.

“I’m trying to tease apart the mechanisms that lead to acceptability in one case and to unacceptability in the other,” Pancheva said.

At the Maryland labs, she attempts to pin down the neuromarkers, or characteristic brain activity, associated with these errors of syntax (structure) and of semantics (meaning).

“We don’t yet have a marker that distinguishes when something goes wrong with compositional semantics — the kind that’s involved in the difference between ‘both chairs’ and ‘two chairs,’ “ she said. “Hopefully one will emerge.”

Once any neuromarkers have been identified, Pancheva said, she and her colleagues can look at the timing of semantic processing relative to syntactic processing. In so doing, she can fine-tune her theories of how syntax and semantics interact.

Looking at such individual problems of structure and meaning through the tools of neuroscience can lead to larger answers about language in humans.

“It’s not that I’m interested in errors, per se. It’s just a way of comparing acceptable to unacceptable sentences, and going back to questions of how language works in our heads.”

But Pancheva confesses a further goal, perhaps equally ambitious: She wants to help build bridges between the fields of linguistics and neuroscience.

“I hope to be able to say, ‘OK, you guys have all these wonderful tools and techniques and skills. How about asking these more detailed, linguistically interesting questions?’ “ she said.

“But in order to be able to talk meaningfully to one another, we have to know the other person’s language to some extent. This grant gives me the time to do just that.”
—Wayne Lewis