"Errors aren't random; they're systematic and constrained. Every 'error' is a window into the underlying mechanisms that are involved in producing speech."

A major error led Heidi Lorimor to find her passion. In her second year of graduate school, Heidi hadn't yet found an area of specialty that inspired her. She had been awarded a Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship to study Arabic and was excited about the new potential before her, but there was a clerical error. "The fellowship didn't happen," says Lorimor, "so I went looking for work."

It turned out that a cognitive scientist working on language needed a Russian speaker -- and Lorimor had her undergraduate degree in Russian. The match was serendipitous in more ways than one: As she assisted the professor in examining how humans form grammatical sentences, she discovered exactly the kind of work she'd always wanted to do. "Until then, I never knew it was possible to study systemacially how humans form grammar."

Lorimor is especially interested in figuring out what processes are at work in the brain by examining the output from the mouth.  "How we speak reflects our underlying thought processes," she says, "but there are competing processes in the brain that ultimately determine what comes out of the mouth."

Pre- and post-verbal agreement asymmetries occur across languages including English, Russian, French and Italian. In English, these asymmetries can be considered errors, while in other languages they are not.  In Lorimor's lab, English speakers might, for instance, use a singular verb with a plural noun when the sentence has an inverted construction, such as when a sentence begins with a preposition. Examples include In the center of the page is two houses and On the table is all the supplies.

Even when we know in our heads what the "correct" usage should be, says Lorimor, sometimes we don't follow the rules when we speak. "Errors aren't random; they're systematic and constrained. Every 'error' is a window into the underlying mechanisms that are involved in producing speech." 

Lorimor's students learn not only how language works, but they also learn about the important applications of the field. "I include a service-learning component in my Language and the Brain course," she says. "Students learn about the neural underpinnings of disordered language related to strokes, autism, Alzheimer's or other conditions. We go to local pre-schools and retirement homes to work with speech and language pathologists and the people they help. It's a field that's not only fascinating, it's relevant."

Posted Sept. 27, 2011


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