New research shows how English speakers read between the lines
In the U.S., Nov. 23 is recognized as the National Day of Listening – a day to share stories and oral histories. But the English language is often said to be very complex due to the multiple meanings a word may have and its relationship to other words in the sentence. Two individuals listening to the same speech or story may interpret it quite differently. To learn more about the complexity of memory and language, Dr. Erin Buchanan, assistant professor of psychology at Missouri State University, recently led a four-year research effort to develop a searchable website that simplifies the relationships between words.
“My research specialty is understanding the relationship between words and how people separate the differences between word meanings and word usage,” said Buchanan. “For instance, if I say ‘I have a cat and a dog,’ you think something totally different than if I say, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’ Somehow we distinguish that distinction very quickly, but it’s unclear how it’s done and stored in our memory.”
Buchanan hopes the website, which includes more than 1,800 words defined by 30-70 individuals each, will be useful to fellow researchers as they develop tests and experiments. The research team included many features on the website which contribute to the complexity of word comprehension, including word length, syllables, meaning, concreteness and imaginability, among others.
“It’s basically an impossible task to make sure the words you use in an experiment are controlled for every last feature because the databases that contain that information are stored on many different researcher and journal websites. Then you have to figure out how to combine them and use only the words with certain features you want,” she said. “It’s a headache.”
This study, which was co-authored by colleagues at other universities and two Missouri State graduate students, Jessica Holmes and Marilee Teasley, will be published in “Behavior Research Methods.” This project was funded by the Graduate College’s Faculty Research Fund and the psychology department.
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