Do the books and language that we are exposed to shape how we process language in general?
The construction and use of the complex communication codes that we call "language" are an important part of what makes humans... well, human.
And not only do we use language to serve our purposes, but, it turns out, language can also shape how we think and behave.
Researchers are continually investigating the role that language plays in shaping our perception and whether, for example, being able to speak two or more languages might reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and other progressive neurodegenerative conditions.
Now, Brendan Johns, Ph.D., from The State University of New York at Buffalo, and Randall Jamieson, Ph.D., from the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, Canada, have conducted a study adding to the evidence that the kind of language that people have access to — as defined by the books that they read, for example — can shape how they process language in general.
They have summarized their findings in a paper published in the journal Behavior Research Methods.
In their study, the team used a specially developed computational method to analyze the lexical content of more than 26,000 works of fiction written either in American or British English.
They then compared this with the lexical behavior — a person's inclinations when using language — of over 1,000 study participants who lived in an environment in which either British or American English was typically read and spoken.
"When people read or hear language, they comprehend that language through the lens of their own experience," Johns and Jamieson write in their paper.
"For example," they explain, "when asked to play a game of football, a person's interpretation of that request might change, depending on the side of the Atlantic where the person was raised."
"But do the subtler differences in language experience exert a meaningful and distinguishable influence on people's behavior and cognition?" This is the question that the two researchers aimed to answer through their study.
Rethinking language behaviors
In their research, the investigators developed a computational model of language that allowed them to verify links between an individual's language behavior, geographic location, and the reading materials that they may have had access to.
"Previously, in linguistics, it was assumed a lot of our ability to use language was instinctual and that our environmental experience lacked the depth necessary to fully acquire the necessary skills," Johns says.
However, he adds, "The models that we're developing today have us questioning those earlier conclusions. Environment does appear to be shaping [language] behavior."
The 26,000 books that the researchers analyzed contained, collectively, over 2 billion words, written by more than 3,000 authors, of whom 1,999 were North American, and 738 were British.
The researchers compared the language patterns in the books — in the context of the authors' nationalities and the eras in which they lived — with information about the language behaviors of participants from 10 other studies that had assessed performance on psycholinguistic tasks.
"The question this paper tries to answer is, 'If we train a model with similar materials that someone in the United Kingdom might have read, versus what someone in the [United States] might have read, will they become more like these people?'" Johns explains.
"We found that the environment people are embedded in seems to shape their behavior," he says.
Thus, people who grew up reading books in American English, compared with those who grew up with books in British English, appeared to process language in a different way, as well as respond differently to language based tasks.
"It's a huge benefit to have a culture-specific corpus and an even greater benefit to have a time-specific corpus. The differences we find in language environment and behavior as a function of time and place is what we call the 'selective reading hypothesis,'" says Johns.
Do the findings have clinical relevance?
Going forward, the researchers are interested in finding out whether they can use their machine-learning methods to improve educational strategies.
"We want to take someone's past experience with language and develop a model of what that person knows," Johns explains, adding that this "lets us identify which information can maximize that person's learning potential."
Another issue that the researchers would like to focus on is whether their current findings could have an impact on prevention strategies for progressive neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease.
"We're finding that people who go on to develop Alzheimer's across time are showing specific types of language loss and production, where they seem to be losing long distance semantic associations between words as well as low frequency words," notes Johns.
"Can we develop tasks and stimuli that will allow that group to retain their language ability for longer or develop a more personalized assessment to understand what type of information they're losing in their cognitive system? This research program has the potential to inform these important questions."
Brendan Johns, Ph.D.