We are all familiar with that one family member or friend who consistently says “themselves” or “better than.” But did you know that some people actually react physically to such language errors? Language purists, grammar judges, or language virtuosos – whatever you want to call them – might have a point. Researchers at the University of Birmingham have fitted volunteers with heart monitors. And sure enough, they found that the subjects’ heart rates actually increased when they noticed linguistic errors.
A group of 41 healthy British-English speaking adults were linked to heart monitors. They were presented with forty sentences, half of which contained language errors. The scientists then closely monitored how this affected the participants’ heart rates.
When a person is relaxed, the length of time between successive heartbeats shows some variation. But when stressed, the time between heartbeats becomes more and more regular. And to their surprise, the latter is exactly what the researchers observed in response to grammatical blunders.
According to Dagmar Divjak, lead researcher of the study, the findings offer a refreshing look at the relationship between our bodies and our language skills. “The results of this study provide new insights into the complex relationship between physiology and cognition,” she notes.
Unconscious language knowledge
It also turns out that this research method reveals a lot about our unconscious language knowledge. As Divjak explains: “You have largely unconscious knowledge of your native language. In other words, you don’t have to actively study to learn your native language. You also don’t have to think much – or perhaps even at all – about using your native language.” So basically, our mother tongue is that faithful friend that is always by our side without us realizing it.
People with a keen sense of language do indeed show physical reactions to language errors. But what can we actually achieve with this knowledge? Quite a bit, says Divjak. By measuring heart rate, we can get a glimpse of someone’s hidden language skills without literally interrogating them. “This is particularly valuable when you work with language users who cannot express their opinions orally due to their young or old age, or due to health problems.”
And that is not all. “This portable and non-invasive technique also offers opportunities to assess the language knowledge of individuals from different population groups in their natural environment,” she adds. Apart from the practical applications, the researcher also takes a look at the bigger picture. “With this method we can gain insight into parts of the mind that we cannot directly observe.”
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