Thursday, August 9, 2007

Meta-linguistic tasks -- Part 1

This is the first entry in a thread on problems associated with the use of meta-linguistic tasks in studying the neuroscience of language. By meta-linguistic, I mean tasks that require explicit attention to some subcomponent of linguistic processing that normally isn't consciously accessed during natural language processing. So whereas the meaning of an utterance is regularly accessed under naturalistic conditions ('Wow, David's talk was full of false statements!'), the phonemic structure, for example, largely goes unnoticed to the listener ('Wow, David uttered the syllable /ba/ 16 times during his talk!'). We could probably argue about how to define meta-linguistic, but I hope the basic contrast is clear enough.

Task effects represent one of the major issues David and I have been harping on in our papers over the last several years, and one that is probably still fairly controversial. Here is one conclusion we have come to regarding the use of meta-linguistic tasks:

Data from meta-linguistic speech tasks generally impedes progress in understanding the functional organization of speech processing.

This was certainly true in the past, and probably continues today. This is not to say that speech scientists should be banned from, say, asking their subjects to discriminate pairs of syllables. In fact, we have been known to employ meta-linguistic tasks in our own studies. Rather, the point is that data from such tasks (any task actually) should be interpreted very carefully in the context of the cognitive operations involved and their relation to those processes involved in more natural speech processing (i.e., for comprehension). In many cases, unfortunately, findings from meta-linguistic tasks have little relevance to understanding normal language processing, and if one assumes such findings are generalizable to normal situations, we end up barking up the wrong gyrus.

Based on some anonymous reviews of our papers, this claim remains either contentious or misunderstood. The goal of this thread is to clarify and underline our position on this issue, hopefully with some interesting discussion.

More to follow...

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