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UGA Awards Linguistics Faculty Member with Seed Grant

Dr. Chacón measures his brain data while viewing short sentences on a screen.

This week, faculty member Dr. Dustin Chacón was awarded a Faculty Seed Grant from the University of Georgia’s Office of Research.

According to the Office of Research, Faculty Seed Grants are competitive grants awarded “to enable faculty to launch new, promising lines of research for which resources are currently not available.” Potential awardees are evaluated based on the “scientific merit” of their project and the likelihood of that project evolving towards a “new, sustained research program.”

Dr. Chacón’s proposal, “Grammar at a glance: Characterizing neural responses to language, all-at-once,” was praised by his grant committee as being “very strong” and “fascinating.”

The Seed grant will be used to support research relating to how the human brain responds when it reads short, simple sentences (e.g., ‘the cat sleeps’, ‘who did she see?’) in a glance. Research participants will be asked to read quickly-displayed sentences while their brain data is recorded by the Linguistics Lab EEG machine. Along with English language processing, the project will include research on Mandarin and Urdu, two understudied languages in the field of neurolinguistics. 

While this research will investigate phenomena that has already been extensively studied by linguists using EEG, previous experiments involved participants reading sentences word-by-word so that they would absorb the sentences in strict parallel (e.g., ‘the - cat - sleeps’). Dr. Chacón’s project instead seeks to let the brain respond to sentence structures in its own organic way. 

Dr. Chacón’s research is important to understanding the brain’s general organization of a language system. Theories of language tend to be built around word-by-word language processing predominant in oral or signed communication. However, reading presents a different challenge because people process stimuli in parallel. How does the brain manage to read things out of the corner of our eyes, or manage to comprehend a tweet or text message within a moment, while visually attending to other stimuli? 

By analyzing the brain’s response to these forms of stimuli, Dr. Chacón hopes to broaden our understanding of language processing in order to potentially lead to improved linguistic theories flexible enough to include language modalities such as reading, speech, sign, tactile systems like Braille, and language surrogates like whistled speech.


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