We’re all familiar with a family member or friend who constantly says “themselves” or “better than.” But did you know that some people actually physically react to such linguistic errors? Linguistic purists, grammar judges, or language nerds—whatever you want to call them—may have a valid point. Researchers at the University of Birmingham fitted volunteers with heart monitors. Sure enough, they found that people’s heart rates actually increased when they noticed language errors.
A group of 41 healthy, English-speaking adults were hooked up to heart monitors. They were shown forty sentences, half of which contained grammatical 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 irregular. To their surprise, the latter is exactly what the researchers observed in response to grammatical errors.
According to Dagmar Divjak, the study’s lead researcher, 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 linguistic knowledge
It also turns out that this research method reveals a lot about our unconscious linguistic knowledge. As Divjak explains: “You have a largely unconscious knowledge of your mother tongue. 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, our mother tongue is basically that loyal friend who is always there for us without us even realizing it.
People with a strong sense of language do show physical reactions to linguistic errors. But what can we actually achieve with this knowledge? Very little, Divjak says. By measuring heart rate, we can get a glimpse into someone’s hidden language skills without literally questioning them. “This is especially valuable when you are working with language users who cannot express their opinions orally because they are young or old, or because of health problems.”
And that’s not all. “This portable, non-invasive technology also provides opportunities to assess the language knowledge of individuals from different populations in their natural environment,” she adds. Apart from practical applications, the researcher also takes a look at the bigger picture. “In this way we can gain insight into parts of the mind that we cannot observe directly.”
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