Yes, you can really get a physical reaction from other people’s language mistakes

And language researchers don’t find that annoying at all. These physical reactions allow them to better test someone’s unconscious knowledge of language.

“They have” or “more expensive as”. Some people’s hairs stand up when they hear these language blunders. Shouldn’t these ‘language purists’ or ‘language Nazis’ – as they are sometimes called – act this way, or do they have a point that they are bothered by hearing other people’s grammatical errors? To investigate this, scientists from the University of Birmingham put it to the test. While the participants were connected to a heart monitor, they heard forty sentences, half of which contained a language error. The scientists then looked at what this did to the participants’ heart rates.

This showed that the participants were really ‘upset’ when they heard the errors. Under normal circumstances – and therefore when a person is relaxed – it is common for the length between successive heartbeats to vary somewhat. When you are stressed, the time between heartbeats becomes more regular. And the researchers saw exactly the latter happen in response to grammatical errors.

Body and mind
“The results of this study provide new insights into the complex relationship between physiology and cognition,” said Dagmar Divjak, lead researcher of the study. The research method can also say a lot about implicit language knowledge. “You know your mother tongue largely unconsciously. This means that you do not 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.” According to Divjak and colleagues, this more intuitive way of learning a language, compared to a grammatical approach, makes it more difficult to parse a sentence and determine exactly what is and is not correct in the native language. Arguing for this is even more difficult. After all, you need a lot of knowledge of grammar for this, which you have less in your own language. But we do ‘feel’ that something is not right, quite literally.

So lingual people do indeed have physical reactions to language errors, but what can we do with that knowledge? By measuring the heart rate, we can get an impression of someone’s unconscious language knowledge without literally asking questions, says Divjak. “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,” says the researcher. “This portable and non-invasive technique also provides opportunities to assess the language knowledge of individuals from different population groups in their natural environment.” In addition to the practical applications, the researcher also looks at the bigger picture. “With this method we can get a glimpse into parts of the mind that we cannot see directly.”

Brain teasers
Also the brain recognizes grammatical errors without being aware of them. In a study from the University of Oregon, researchers presented participants with sentences that may or may not contain errors, and at the same time they fatigued the participants with a listening task. When the participant correctly indicated that a sentence was incorrect, the researchers saw a change in brain activity. “A brain mechanism recognizes the error, responds to it and processes it subconsciously so that you understand the sentence correctly,” says Laura Batterink, head of research in the scientific journal Neuroscience. So the researchers propose that the brain unconsciously processes syntactic (according to grammatical rules) information, even in the absence of consciousness.