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Review of  Slavic Languages in Psycholinguistics

Reviewer: Iya Khelm Price
Book Title: Slavic Languages in Psycholinguistics
Book Author: Tanja Anstatt Anja Gattnar Christina Clasmeier
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): Bulgarian
Language Family(ies): Slavic Subgroup
Issue Number: 28.2243

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Reviewer: Helen Aristar-Dry


The book “Slavic Languages in Psycholinguistics. Chances and Challenges for Empirical and Experimental Research” edited by Tanja Anstatt, Anja Gattnar, Christina Clasmeier is a collection of twelve papers that discuss the use of psycholinguistic methodology for investigation of Slavic languages. The collection is the result of the workshop on Slavic language processing that the authors of the articles attended in 2014 at the University of Tubingen. The workshop discussed methodological challenges related to investigating Slavic languages using psycholinguistic methodology, which became the central theme of this volume. This book will be mainly of interest to the researchers that work or are planning to work with Slavic languages; however, it covers a broad variety of topics, so the researchers might find it more useful to look at individual papers from the collection that are more closely related to their area of interest. The book might be also used as a supplemental material in a special seminar or a course on Slavic languages in psycholinguistics.

The papers in this volume report on different issues that the researchers encountered when investigating Slavic language processing. The problems that relate to item selection and creation, participants’ variability in acceptability judgements, analysis techniques, and choices of methodology are covered in the collection. Importantly, most papers propose possible solutions or suggestions to how to address these issues. While all papers discuss the difficulties based on Slavic languages, most of these problems are not language-specific and are common for psycholinguistic research in general. The first paper is an overview of psycholinguistic research methods and might serve as an introduction for those who are not familiar with the field. Various topics are represented in the book: two papers talk about morphological processing and morphological variation, two are on variability in acceptability judgements, two are on bilingual mental lexicon, one is on code-switching, one paper is on analysis of processing of naturalistic corpus data, one paper is on cross-linguistic comparisons, and, finally, one paper is related to sign language. A variety of methods are covered in the collection: self-paced reading, eye tracking, corpus analysis, event-related potential (ERP), variety of acceptability judgement tasks, lexical decision tasks, etc. Most papers in the book are related to the Russian language, three to Czech, one to Polish, and one to Belarusian.

The first paper, “The use of experimental methods in linguistic research: advantages, problems and possible pitfalls” by Barbara Mertins is an overview of pros and cons of different methods used in psycholinguistic research: offline, behavioral, and neurological online methods. The paper focuses and provides detailed descriptions of the experimental methods used in the author’s own research, such as elicitations, eye tracking, memory tasks, and preference judgements. The methodology and procedures of the conducted studies are detailed, and some downsides that were discovered while conducting these studies are pointed out, as well as considerations for future researchers planning to use similar tasks and techniques. Finally, the author talks about advantages of using quantitative research methods over qualitative.

The second paper, “How to investigate interpretation in Slavic experimentally?” by Roumyana Slabakova discusses variability in interpretation judgments by native speakers of Russian. Two cases are compared, one of which details unexpected interpretations when investigating mass nouns and bare plurals as objects in the constructions with perfective and imperfective verbs, and the other study investigates acceptability of topic vs. focus objects in preverbal/fronted positions. The author shows that the expectations for the judgements set by the linguistic theory are not always borne out by native speaker participants, whose judgments are not as categorical as the theory would predict. To explain this phenomenon, the author proposes a grammar that points out that in Slavic languages, particularly in Russian, grammatical meanings are underspecified and largely dependent on context, lexical material, word order, intonation, and other factors. Thus, the author suggests that methods like elicitations, ERP, or eye tracking might not be suitable for studying flexible meanings in Slavic languages related to aspect, definiteness, information structure, etc.

The third paper, “Does language-as-used fit a self-paced reading paradigm? (The answer may well depend on how you model the data.)” by Dagmar Divjak, Antti Arppe, and Harald Baayen shows how Generalized Linear Mixed effects Regression Model can be used to analyze data of self-paced reading experiments that use naturalistic data, that is, when the experimental sentences are not artificially created and balanced for the experiment, but produced by Russian native speakers and found in a corpus. Such naturalistic sentences did not have comparable word orders and thus the regions of interest were at different positions in the experimental items. The study first shows the patterns found in the corpus, and then how they correspond to the subjects’ processing patterns of these sentences. While the authors appear to conclude with more questions than answers, they bring up important points of how the morphologically-rich Russian language, with flexible word order that creates shades and nuances in meaning, cannot be fit into the pre-constructed fixed-word order items.

The paper “One experiment – different languages: A challenge for the transfer of experimental designs. Examples from cross-linguistic and inner-Slavic research” by Anja Gattnar raises important issues related to comparing linguistic phenomena across languages using time-sensitive experimental methods. The differences in verbal aspect marking in Russian and Czech are discussed and then their processing compared experimentally using self-paced reading and forced choice experiments. In addition, the processing of overtly-marked aspect in Russian is compared to processing of revealed through context aspect in German using eye tracking. The paper points out that when constructing items, the issues related to word order, absent categories, alignment of syllables, and differences in frequencies can complicate conducting the same experiment in a different language. The author provides detailed descriptions of how it was possible to adjust the items to be able to do that, and suggests that cross-linguistic experimental designs should be planned in advance, items for both languages should be created simultaneously, and less time-sensitive measures should be used.

The next paper, “Variation in Russian verbal prefixes and psycholinguistic experiments”, by Anastasia Makarova investigates Russian morphological variation in two cloze-test experiments based on the corpus data. The results of the investigation showed that native speakers do not randomly choose the morphemes to express closely related meanings, but the choice is motivated by frequency, morphology, semantics, and context. The native speakers’ preferences found experimentally corresponded to pattern of results revealed in the corpus. Furthermore, the author discusses methodological challenges that arose with the change of the types of morphemes under investigation. Importantly, the author discusses solutions that were implemented in the experimental design as well as in the analysis. Overall, the paper emphasizes importance of adjusting the design and analysis for different types of seemingly similar, but different when taking a closer look, morphological phenomena. Finally, the author shows how corpus data can provide basis for experimental investigations.

Denisa Bordag’s paper “Reaction time methodology in psycholinguistic research: An overview of studies on Czech morphology” is a summary of studies that investigate morphological processing in the highly inflectional Czech language. This paper discusses several techniques that measure reaction times, such as lexical decision task, morphological repetition priming, and picture-word distractor paradigm. These techniques aim to investigate how inflected verbs are represented in mind and to test morphological decomposition of words with inflectional and derivational morphemes. The article also discusses how properties of the Czech language (grammatical gender, declensional and conjugational classes) can be used to investigate mental representations and processing mechanisms.

Elena Dieser’s paper “Some “cases of doubt” in Russian grammar from different methodological perspectives” investigates acceptability by Russian native speakers of different grammatical variations in Russian. Several types of grammaticality and acceptability judgement tasks were used in this investigation. Some of these tasks had a scale (1-5) on which the participants rated the items, while others used a rating scale with no endpoints. Moreover, some of these ratings were followed by additional questions, and others were not.. While the results of different methods did not differ statistically, the author shows that there is no strict judgement on acceptability of grammatical variations across participants, and various methods complement each other to help explain the reasons why certain items received a specific rating. Overall, the paper demonstrates comparison of different methods and how they work together to reveal additional information about the choices the participants make.

The next paper, “How to study spoken word recognition: evidence from Russian” by Julija Nigmatulina, Olga Raeva, Elena Riechakajnen, Natalija Slepokurova, and Anatolij Vencov is an overview of the spoken word recognition research and a proposal of several methodological principles that the researchers should follow when investigating how people understand speech. The authors talk about importance of using spontaneous speech as the experimental stimuli to investigate speech recognition mechanisms. Specifically, they point out the necessity of creating and using spontaneous speech corpora and issues associated with it, such as the issue of transcribing the speech properly and the number of sound variations. In Russian, there is much variation in terms of vowel reductions, as well as pauses. The paper discusses the use of different methodologies, such as dictation, cloze test tasks, creating a context for a word, rating the naturalness of context, and others. The authors conclude with remarks that future researchers of spoken speech recognition should consider.

The following paper, “Are Schalter and sapka good competitors? Searching for stimuli for an investigation of the Russian-German bilingual mental lexicon” by Christina Clasmeier, Tanja Anstatt, Jessica Ernst, and Eva Belke, is about difficulties that arise when creating stimuli for experimental research. The authors mention that the process of item creation is rarely described in the literature in enough detail to understand the number of difficulties that it involves. Thus, they provide a detailed description of creating items for an eye-tracking study with visual word paradigm, which was designed to investigate the co-activation phenomena in L1 and L2 with early and late bilinguals. The methodological problems that the paper describes are related to word frequency disparities, finding the straightforward word and picture matches, and evaluation of phonetic and phonological differences between the languages under investigation. The authors describe pre-tests they conducted to ensure that the words and pictures used in the experiments clearly match. They suggest that the solution for the frequency disparities between the items could be including the item frequency as a factor in the statistical analysis of results or using a subjective frequency test instead the corpus frequency analysis. Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of quantitative analysis when analyzing the amount of phonological overlap between the items.

The paper “Measuring lexical proficiency in Slavic heritage languages: A comparison of different experimental approaches” by Bernhard Brehmer, Tatjana Kurbangulova, and Martin Winski presents how different experimental methods evaluate the lexical abilities of young bilinguals, specifically, Russian and Polish heritage speakers in Germany. The methods used for the investigation were a picture naming task, a semantic mapping task, translation tasks, and verbal fluency tasks. While the authors found that the results of all tasks statistically correlated, the translation task was found to be the most strongly correlated with the results of other tasks, so it was concluded to be the best for evaluation of bilinguals’ lexical proficiency. However, the authors demonstrated that using multiple tasks and not just a single method was beneficial to reveal the different dimensions of lexical knowledge; and thus they concluded that for the best set of results, several methods should be used in combination.

In Jan Partick Zeller, Gerd Hentschel, and Esther Ruigendijk’s paper “Psycholinguistic aspects of Belarusian-Russian language contact. An ERP study on code-switching between closely related languages”, the authors discuss issues related to language contact, code-switching, and code-mixing. They raise the issue of uniqueness of bilingualism with such closely related languages as Belarusian and Russian, to which the authors refer as “mixed-monolingualism”. The ERP methodology was used in this study to investigate processing of Belarusian-Russian and Russian-Belarusian code-switching. It was found that while there appeared to be sensitivity to the switching that is normally associated with lexical retrieval, there was no indication of syntactic reanalysis, which was explained in terms of the structural properties of the two languages being closely related.

The final paper, “Influence of spatial language on the non-linguistic spatial reasoning of sign language users. A comparison between Czech Sign Language users and Czech non-signers” by Jakub Jehlicka aims to investigate the correlation between the participants’ spatial reasoning abilities and their gender, sign-language competence, and types of objects presented to them, as well as the objects’ rotation and arrangement. The study predicts that non-hearing signers should be more competent in the spatial reasoning than hearing non-signers. The interim results are presented in the paper since the study was still ongoing at the time of publication.


The papers in this book are mainly related to issues the researchers encountered when creating and conducting experiments investigating processing of Slavic languages. This collection constitutes a valuable discussion of potential issues that researchers need to consider before designing the experiments and starting data collection. There are not many volumes dedicated to this aspect of psycholinguistic research and specifically related to Slavic language processing. The volume demonstrates that Slavic languages in psycholinguistics need a special approach and brings up issues that do not arise when studying other language groups. All papers discuss issues related to adjusting experimental design to the specific phenomenon and data under investigation. While psycholinguists generally know that one design does not fit different data sets or different goals of the experiments, it has not been discussed in detail in relation to linguistic issues in Slavic languages. The papers in the book clearly demonstrate the number of variables that the researchers need to account for when creating the experimental items. Most of the issues discussed in the book could be generalized to study of language processing in general.

One of the shortcomings of the book is that while Slavic languages is a unifying topic running through the collection, the variety of topics and methods, and the differences in complexity of studies make it difficult to identify the appropriate audience for it. Some papers go into much depth and statistical detail, while others explain details that are too basic for someone who works in the field of psycholinguistics already. The different topics that the book covers are not equally represented and the papers are not straightforwardly grouped by theme or by language, which creates an impression that the papers were selected based on what was available. Some related papers are located next to each other, others are not. Out of all Slavic languages, the Russian language is the focus of nine papers, while other languages are underrepresented (which of course could be simply an indication that Russian is the most widely studied). Most papers are related to morphology or lexical access, and only a few touch on other areas, like sentence processing. While the goal of the collection is to discuss the problems related to experimental research in psycholinguistics, some papers do not provide enough details about the original experiments they describe and call for the necessity to go back to those original sources to fully understand and evaluate all the conclusions. Finally, while most papers provide possible solutions to the issues they encounter and useful specific suggestions, others only provide common sense suggestions, or raise more questions than provide answers.

All in all, the book might be useful for researchers who work on Slavic languages in psycholinguistics; otherwise, researchers might find individual papers from the book useful if they are closely related to their area of interest. The book is altogether a good and necessary contribution to the field of psycholinguistic research based on Slavic languages.
I earned PhD in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) in 2016, and currently I am a lecturer at the UTA department of Modern Languages and at the department of Linguistics and TESOL. My research interests are related to Russian language, psycholinguistics (sentence processing), and second language acquisition. In my research, I use experimental methodology (acceptability judgements, self-paced reading, eye tracking, etc.).