Linguists often take their object of study to be mental representations. Neurolinguistics (or the cognitive neuroscience of language) measures brain activity to probe these representations. Neurophysiological techniques can give us more precise information about the timecourse of language processing, or allow us to measure subtle perceptual distinctions without the need for an artificial task. We can also use these techniques to ask questions about the neural implementation of language itself. Where are phonemic, semantic, and syntactic representations stored? What kind of neural code is used to concatenate smaller pieces into a larger structure? What is the wiring between areas that allows different types of information to contribute to disambiguation? And, are there brain structures that are innately designated for language? Much is still unknown about the measures themselves, and therefore cognitive neuroscience studies of language can also contribute more broadly to developing a better understanding of techniques like MEG and fMRI.
Faculty and students at Maryland engage in many of these questions, often by examining a language other than English, when that language is better suited to addressing a problem of interest. The department was one of the first sites in the country to have a fully-staffed MEG (magnetoencephalography) facility devoted to research. By recording changes in the magnetic field around the head associated with brain activity, researchers at Maryland have gained significant insights into the processing of auditory, phonological, morphological, and lexical-semantic information (e.g., using Turkish to demonstrate that some dimensions of vowel space are paralleled in the location of the early MEG response). The department also houses an EEG (electroencephalography) lab for recording ERPs (event-related potentials) on the scalp. ERP research in the department has examined many aspects of sentence comprehension, including the relative independence of syntactic and semantic processing (in Spanish and Chinese) and differential predictors of tense marking (in Hindi), and there is growing interest in using ERP measures to test computational models of linguistic knowledge. Now Maryland researchers will also have access to a third major non-invasive cognitive neuroscience technique, as the Maryland Neuroimaging Center opens in Fall 2011 with state-of-the-art MRI/fMRI facilities. This new center opens the door for multimodal imaging research that can combine the temporal precision of EEG/MEG with the spatial specificity of fMRI to provide a more complete view of language processing in the brain.