It has been thought that the brain processes language, including grammar and syntax in an abstract way. A recent study says that a listener’s language processing is affected by the speaker’s gender
For decades it has been thought that the brain processes grammar and syntax automatically and that these are turned into an abstract form, without regard for dialect and speaker gender. However, the study conducted by the University of Kansas, published in PLOS One, revealed that this is not so, that the brain’s language processing, particularly grammar, is affected by the gender of the person speaking. In short, the study suggests that the gender of the speaker determines how accurately and speedily we understand the words being said.
When you hear words spoken, it is not only the meaning of the word that your brain processes. You also get to know a bit about the speaker. You know the speaker’s gender through his or his voice. You also know where he or she comes from, with a bit of help from the accent. However, for some psychologists, these bits of information are removed when the brain does the actual processing and storing of the words to memory. American philosopher, linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky and his followers subscribe to this idea.
A group of researchers tested the assumption that a listener’s language processing is affected by gender.
Spanish is a language that has grammatical gender. Spanish words that end in “o” are usually masculine and those words ending in “a” are oftentimes feminine in gender. Taking this into consideration, the researchers at the University of Kansas tested how fast and accurate listeners can identify whether the Spanish words are feminine or masculine, based on the gender of the person speaking. Their study revealed that the listeners slowed down in identifying the words grammatically when there is a mismatch between the word’s gender and that of the speaker’s. They listeners also became less accurate when there is a mismatch. This happened although the test listeners and speakers were native speakers of Spanish.
Michael Vitevitch, psychology professor at Kansas University said their study indicated that information about the language and the speaker indeed influence not only the process of word recognition in the brain; it also affects the higher processing levels that are linked to grammar.
Vitevitch is quick to add that there is evidence that memory is both exemplar and abstract. Both systems of processing are needed not only for efficiency but for language processing to be complete.
Comparing this test results to how male and female radio talk show hosts fared decades ago, the preferred “radio” voice is one that is velvety and low-pitched. Even if the radio announcer is male, if his voice is high pitched, more often than not, listeners switch off their radios. That is generally speaking because if the topic is important and interesting, listeners stay tuned.
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