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Ricercatore t.d. art. 24 c. 3 lett. B
Dipartimento di Scienze Biomediche, Metaboliche e Neuroscienze sede ex-Sc. Biomediche

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2022 - An ERP investigation of accented isolated single word processing [Articolo su rivista]
Thomas, T.; Martin, C. D.; Caffarra, S.

Previous studies show that there are differences in native and non-native speech processing (Lev-Ari, 2018). However, less is known about the differences between processing native and dialectal accents. Is dialectal processing more similar to foreign or native speech? To address this, two theories have been proposed. The Perceptual Distance Hypothesis states that the mechanisms underlying dialectal accent processing are attenuated versions of those of foreign (Clarke & Garrett, 2004). Conversely, the Different Processes Hypothesis argues that the mechanisms of foreign and dialectal accent processing are qualitatively different (Floccia et al., 2009). The present study addresses these hypotheses. Electroencephalographic data was recorded from 25 participants who listened to 40 isolated words in different accents. Event-Related Potential mean amplitudes were extracted: P2 [150–250 ms], PMN [250–400 ms] and N400 [400–600 ms]. Support for the Different Processes Hypothesis was found in different time windows. Results show that early processing mechanisms distinguish only between native and non-native speech, with a reduced P2 amplitude for foreign accent processing, supporting the Different Processes Hypothesis. Furthermore, later processing mechanisms show a similar binary difference in the processing of the accents, with a larger PMN negativity elicited in the foreign accent than the others, further supporting the Different Processes Hypothesis. Results contribute to the understanding of single word processing, in which it is uniquely difficult to extract acoustic characteristics from foreign accent, and in which foreign accented speech is associated with the largest cost, as compared to native and dialectal speech, of phonological matching between representations and acoustic input.

2022 - Trauma-Related Distress During the COVID-19 Pandemic In 59 Countries [Articolo su rivista]
Ertl, M. M.; Trapp, S. K.; Alzueta, E.; Baker, F. C.; Perrin, P. B.; Caffarra, S.; Yuksel, D.; Ramos-Usuga, D.; Arango-Lasprilla, J. C.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life like few other events in modern history, with differential impacts on varying population groups. This study examined trauma-related distress among 6,882 adults ages 18 to 94 years old in 59 countries during April to May 2020. More than two-thirds of participants reported clinically significant trauma-related distress. Increased distress was associated with unemployment; identifying as transgender, nonbinary, or a cisgender woman; being from a higher income country; current symptoms and positive diagnosis of COVID-19; death of a loved one; restrictive government-imposed isolation; financial difficulties; and food insecurity. Other factors associated with distress included working with potentially infected individuals, care needs at home, a difficult transition to working from home, conflict in the home, separation from loved ones, and event restrictions. Latin American and Caribbean participants reported more trauma-related distress than participants from Europe and Central Asia. Findings inform treatment efforts and highlight the need to address trauma-related distress to avoid long-term mental health consequences.

2022 - When a nonnative accent lets you spot all the errors: Examining the syntactic interlanguage benefit [Articolo su rivista]
Gosselin, L.; Martin, C. D.; Martin, A. G.; Caffarra, S.

In our continuously globalizing world, cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communications are far from exceptional. A wealth of research has indicated that the processing of nonnative-accented speech can be challenging for native listeners, both at the level of phonology. However, few online studies have examined the underpinnings of accented speech recognition from the perspective of the nonnative listener, even though behavioral studies indicate that accented input may be easier to process for such individuals (i.e., the interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit. The current EEG study first examined the phonological and syntactic analysis of nonnative-accented speech among nonnative listeners. As such, 30 English learners of Spanish listened to syntactically correct and incorrect Spanish sentences produced in native and nonnative-accented Spanish. The violation in the incorrect sentences was caused by errors that are typical (i.e., gender errors; *la color) or atypical (i.e., number errors; *los color) for English learners of Spanish. Results indicated that nonnative listeners elicit a phonological mismatch negativity (PMN) when attending to speech produced by a native Spanish speaker. Furthermore, the nonnative listeners showed a P600 for all grammatical violations, indicating that they repair all errors regardless of their typicality or the accent in which they are produced. Follow-up analyses compared our novel data to the data of native listeners from the methodologically identical precursor study. These analyses showed that native and nonnative listeners exhibit directionally opposite PMN effects; whereas natives exhibited a larger PMN for English-accented Spanish, nonnatives displayed a larger PMN in response to native Spanish utterances (a classic interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit). An additional difference was observed at the syntactic level: Whereas natives repaired only atypical number errors when they were English-accented, nonnative participants exhibited a P600 in response to all English-accented syntactic errors, regardless of their typicality (a syntactic interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit). Altogether, these results suggest that accented speech is not inherently difficult to process; in fact, nonnatives may benefit from the presence of a nonnative accent. Thus, our data provide some of the first electrophysiological evidence supporting the existence of the classic interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit and its novel syntactic counterpart.

2021 - Anatomy and physiology of word-selective visual cortex: from visual features to lexical processing [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Karipidis, I. I.; Yablonski, M.; Yeatman, J. D.

Over the past 2 decades, researchers have tried to uncover how the human brain can extract linguistic information from a sequence of visual symbols. The description of how the brain's visual system processes words and enables reading has improved with the progressive refinement of experimental methodologies and neuroimaging techniques. This review provides a brief overview of this research journey. We start by describing classical models of object recognition in non-human primates, which represent the foundation for many of the early models of visual word recognition in humans. We then review functional neuroimaging studies investigating the word-selective regions in visual cortex. This research led to the differentiation of highly specialized areas, which are involved in the analysis of different aspects of written language. We then consider the corresponding anatomical measurements and provide a description of the main white matter pathways carrying neural signals crucial to word recognition. Finally, in an attempt to integrate structural, functional, and electrophysiological findings, we propose a view of visual word recognition, accounting for spatial and temporal facets of word-selective neural processes. This multi-modal perspective on the neural circuitry of literacy highlights the relevance of a posterior-anterior differentiation in ventral occipitotemporal cortex for visual processing of written language and lexical features. It also highlights unanswered questions that can guide us towards future research directions. Bridging measures of brain structure and function will help us reach a more precise understanding of the transformation from vision to language.

2021 - Automaticity in the reading circuitry [Articolo su rivista]
Joo, S. J.; Tavabi, K.; Caffarra, S.; Yeatman, J. D.

Skilled reading requires years of practice associating visual symbols with speech sounds. Over the course of the learning process, this association becomes effortless and automatic. Here we test whether automatic activation of spoken-language circuits in response to visual words is a hallmark of skilled reading. Magnetoencephalography was used to measure word-selective responses under multiple cognitive tasks (N = 42, 7–12 years of age). Even when attention was drawn away from the words by performing an attention-demanding fixation task, strong word-selective responses were found in a language region (i.e., superior temporal gyrus) starting at ~300 ms after stimulus onset. Critically, this automatic word-selective response was indicative of reading skill: the magnitude of word-selective responses correlated with individual reading skill. Our results suggest that automatic recruitment of spoken-language circuits is a hallmark of skilled reading; with practice, reading becomes effortless as the brain learns to automatically translate letters into sounds and meaning.

2021 - Development of the visual white matter pathways mediates development of electrophysiological responses in visual cortex [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Joo, S. J.; Bloom, D.; Kruper, J.; Rokem, A.; Yeatman, J. D.

The latency of neural responses in the visual cortex changes systematically across the lifespan. Here, we test the hypothesis that development of visual white matter pathways mediates maturational changes in the latency of visual signals. Thirty-eight children participated in a cross-sectional study including diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) sessions. During the MEG acquisition, participants performed a lexical decision and a fixation task on words presented at varying levels of contrast and noise. For all stimuli and tasks, early evoked fields were observed around 100 ms after stimulus onset (M100), with slower and lower amplitude responses for low as compared to high contrast stimuli. The optic radiations and optic tracts were identified in each individual's brain based on diffusion MRI tractography. The diffusion properties of the optic radiations predicted M100 responses, especially for high contrast stimuli. Higher optic radiation fractional anisotropy (FA) values were associated with faster and larger M100 responses. Over this developmental window, the M100 responses to high contrast stimuli became faster with age and the optic radiation FA mediated this effect. These findings suggest that the maturation of the optic radiations over childhood accounts for individual variations observed in the developmental trajectory of visual cortex responses.

2021 - Editorial: Featural Relations in the Brain: Theoretical and Experimental Perspectives on Grammatical Agreement [Articolo su rivista]
Mancini, S.; Caffarra, S.; Nevins, A.

2021 - How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives: A study of psychological correlates across 59 countries [Articolo su rivista]
Alzueta, E.; Perrin, P.; Baker, F. C.; Caffarra, S.; Ramos-Usuga, D.; Yuksel, D.; Arango-Lasprilla, J. C.

Objective: This study examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social restrictions or quarantines on the mental health of the global adult population. Method: A sample of 6,882 individuals (Mage = 42.30; 78.8% female) from 59 countries completed an online survey asking about several pandemic-related changes in life and psychological status. Results: Of these participants, 25.4% and 19.5% reported moderate-to-severe depression (DASS-21) and anxiety symptoms (GAD-7), respectively. Demographic characteristics (e.g. higher-income country), COVID-19 exposure (e.g., having had unconfirmed COVID-19 symptoms), government-imposed quarantine level, and COVID-19-based life changes (e.g., having a hard time transitioning to working from home; increase in verbal arguments or conflict with other adult in home) explained 17.9% of the variance in depression and 21.5% in anxiety symptoms. Conclusions: In addition to posing a high risk to physical health, the COVID-19 pandemic has robustly affected global mental health, so it is essential to ensure that mental health services reach individuals showing pandemic-related depression and anxiety symptoms.

2021 - Rapid online assessment of reading ability [Articolo su rivista]
Yeatman, J. D.; Tang, K. A.; Donnelly, P. M.; Yablonski, M.; Ramamurthy, M.; Karipidis, I. I.; Caffarra, S.; Takada, M. E.; Kanopka, K.; Ben-Shachar, M.; Domingue, B. W.

An accurate model of the factors that contribute to individual differences in reading ability depends on data collection in large, diverse and representative samples of research participants. However, that is rarely feasible due to the constraints imposed by standardized measures of reading ability which require test administration by trained clinicians or researchers. Here we explore whether a simple, two-alternative forced choice, time limited lexical decision task (LDT), self-delivered through the web-browser, can serve as an accurate and reliable measure of reading ability. We found that performance on the LDT is highly correlated with scores on standardized measures of reading ability such as the Woodcock-Johnson Letter Word Identification test (r = 0.91, disattenuated r = 0.94). Importantly, the LDT reading ability measure is highly reliable (r = 0.97). After optimizing the list of words and pseudowords based on item response theory, we found that a short experiment with 76 trials (2–3 min) provides a reliable (r = 0.95) measure of reading ability. Thus, the self-administered, Rapid Online Assessment of Reading ability (ROAR) developed here overcomes the constraints of resource-intensive, in-person reading assessment, and provides an efficient and automated tool for effective online research into the mechanisms of reading (dis)ability.

2021 - Reading without phonology: ERP evidence from skilled deaf readers of Spanish [Articolo su rivista]
Costello, B.; Caffarra, S.; Farina, N.; Dunabeitia, J. A.; Carreiras, M.

Reading typically involves phonological mediation, especially for transparent orthographies with a regular letter to sound correspondence. In this study we ask whether phonological coding is a necessary part of the reading process by examining prelingually deaf individuals who are skilled readers of Spanish. We conducted two EEG experiments exploiting the pseudohomophone effect, in which nonwords that sound like words elicit phonological encoding during reading. The first, a semantic categorization task with masked priming, resulted in modulation of the N250 by pseudohomophone primes in hearing but not in deaf readers. The second, a lexical decision task, confirmed the pattern: hearing readers had increased errors and an attenuated N400 response for pseudohomophones compared to control pseudowords, whereas deaf readers did not treat pseudohomophones any differently from pseudowords, either behaviourally or in the ERP response. These results offer converging evidence that skilled deaf readers do not rely on phonological coding during visual word recognition. Furthermore, the finding demonstrates that reading can take place in the absence of phonological activation, and we speculate about the alternative mechanisms that allow these deaf individuals to read competently.

2021 - Reading-related brain changes in audiovisual processing: Cross-sectional and longitudinal MEG evidence [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Lizarazu, M.; Molinaro, N.; Carreiras, M.

The ability to establish associations between visual objects and speech sounds is essential for human reading. Understanding the neural adjustments required for acquisition of these arbitrary audiovisual associations can shed light on fundamental reading mechanisms and help reveal how literacy builds on pre-existing brain circuits. To address these questions, the present longitudinal and cross-sectional MEG studies characterize the temporal and spatial neural correlates of audiovisual syllable congruency in children (4-9 years old, 22 males and 20 females) learning to read. Both studies showed that during the first years of reading instruction children gradually set up audiovisual correspondences between letters and speech sounds, which can be detected within the first 400 ms of a bimodal presentation and recruit the superior portions of the left temporal cortex. These findings suggest that children progressively change the way they treat audiovisual syllables as a function of their reading experience. This reading-specific brain plasticity implies (partial) recruitment of pre-existing brain circuits for audiovisual analysis.

2021 - Sleeping when the world locks down: Correlates of sleep health during the COVID-19 pandemic across 59 countries [Articolo su rivista]
Yuksel, D.; McKee, G. B.; Perrin, P. B.; Alzueta, E.; Caffarra, S.; Ramos-Usuga, D.; Arango-Lasprilla, J. C.; Baker, F. C.

Objectives: COVID-19 escalated into a global pandemic affecting countries around the world. As communities shut down to reduce disease spread, all aspects of life have been altered, including sleep. This study investigated changes in sleep patterns and correlates of sleep health in a global sample and examined relationships between sleep health and psychological distress. Design: Cross-sectional. Settings: Online survey distributed between April 19 and May 3, 2020. Participants: Total 6882 participants (18-94 years) across 59 countries. Measurements: Sleep health (RU-SATED), demographics, pandemic-related factors, mood. Results: More than half the sample shifted their sleep toward later bed- and wake-times, and more than a third reported increased sleep disturbances during the pandemic. Older age, being partnered, and living in a higher income country were associated with better sleep health, while a stricter level of quarantine and pandemic-related factors (being laid off from job, financial strain, or difficulties transitioning to working from home) were associated with poorer sleep health. Domestic conflict was the strongest correlate of poorer sleep health. Poorer sleep health was strongly associated with greater depression and anxiety symptoms. Participants from Latin America reported the lowest sleep health scores. Conclusions: COVID-19-associated factors have impacted sleep health on a global level. While our data are correlational, sleep health is strongly linked with mental health and could play a protective role against developing mental distress during pandemic-related isolation. Sleep health should be incorporated into public health messages aimed at helping people cope with the effects of a pandemic to maintain optimal mental and physical health.

2021 - The presence of a foreign accent introduces lexical integration difficulties during late semantic processing [Articolo su rivista]
Gosselin, L.; Martin, C. D.; Navarra-Barindelli, E.; Caffarra, S.

Previous research suggests that native listeners may be more tolerant to syntactic errors when they are produced in a foreign accent. However, studies investigating this topic within the semantic domain remain conflicting. The current study examined the effects of mispronunciations leading to semantic abnormality in foreign-accented speech. While their EEG was recorded, native speakers of Spanish listened to semantically correct and incorrect sentences produced by another native speaker and a native speaker of Chinese. The anomaly in the incorrect sentences was caused by a subtle mispronunciation (typical or atypical in Chinese-accented Spanish) during a critical word production. While initial-stage semantic processing yielded no accent-specific differences, late processing revealed a persistent N400-effect in the foreign-accent but not in the native-accent. These findings suggest that foreign-accented mispronunciations are more difficult to integrate than native-accented errors, regardless of their relative typicality. The distinction between syntactic and semantic processing of foreign-accented speech is discussed.

2020 - The Processing of Spanish Article–Noun Gender Agreement by Monolingual and Bilingual Toddlers [Articolo su rivista]
Molnar, M.; Aleman Banon, J.; Mancini, S.; Caffarra, S.

We assessed monolingual Spanish and bilingual Spanish-Basque toddlers’ sensitivity to gender agreement in correct vs. incorrect Spanish noun phrases (definite article + noun), using a spontaneous preference listening paradigm. Monolingual Spanish-learning toddlers exhibited a tendency to listen longer to the grammatically correct phrases (e.g., la casa; “the house”), as opposed to the incorrect ones (e.g., *el casa). This listening preference toward correct phrases is in line with earlier results obtained from French monolingual 18-month-olds (van Heugten & Christophe, 2015). Bilingual toddlers in the current study, however, tended to listen longer to the incorrect phrases. Basque was not a source of interference in the bilingual toddler’s input as Basque does not instantiate grammatical gender agreement. Overall, our results suggest that both monolingual and bilingual toddlers can distinguish between the correct and incorrect phrases by 18 months of age; however, monolinguals and bilinguals allocate their attention differently when processing grammatically incorrect forms.

2020 - Who are you talking to? The role of addressee identity in utterance comprehension [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Wolpert, M.; Scarinci, D.; Mancini, S.

Experimental evidence suggests that speaker and addressee quickly adapt to each other from the earliest moments of sentence processing, and that interlocutor-related information is rapidly integrated with other sources of nonpragmatic information (e.g., semantic, morphosyntactic, etc.). These findings have been taken as support for one-step models of sentence comprehension. The results from the present event-related potential study challenge this theoretical framework providing a case where discourse level information is integrated only at a late stage of processing, when morphosyntactic analysis has been already initiated. We considered the case of Basque allocutive agreement, where information about addressee gender is encoded in verbal inflection. Two different types of Basque grammatical violations were presented together with the corresponding control conditions: one could be detected based on a morphosyntactic mismatch (person agreement violation), while the other could be detected only if the addressee's gender was considered (allocutive violation). Morphosyntactic violations elicited greater N400 effects followed by P600 effects, while allocutive violations elicited only P600 effects. These results provide new constraints to one-step accounts as they represent a case where speakers do not immediately adjust to the addressee's perspective. We propose that the relevance of discourse-level information might be a crucial variable to reconcile the dichotomy between one- and two-step models.

2019 - Is the LAN effect in morphosyntactic processing an ERP artifact? [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Mendoza, M.; Davidson, D.

The left anterior negativity (LAN) is an ERP component that has been often associated with morphosyntactic processing, but recent reports have questioned whether the LAN effect, in fact, exists. The present project examined whether the LAN effect, observed in the grand average response to local agreement violations, is the result of the overlap between two different ERP effects (N400, P600) at the level of subjects (n = 80), items (n = 120), or trials (n = 6160). By-subject, by-item, and by-trial analyses of the ERP effect between 300 and 500 ms showed a LAN for 55% of the participants, 46% of the items, and 49% of the trials. Many examples of the biphasic LAN-P600 response were observed. Mixed-linear models showed that the LAN effect size was not reduced after accounting for subject variability. The present results suggest that there are cases where the grand average LAN effect represents the brain responses of individual participants, items, and trials.

2019 - Not all errors are the same: ERP sensitivity to error typicality in foreign accented speech perception [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Martin, C. D.

Intercultural communication has become more and more frequent in the recent globalized society. When native listeners try to understand non-native speakers, they have to deal with different types of grammatical errors, some being frequently encountered and others being less common. The present Event-Related Potential (ERP) study investigated how native listeners process different types of morphosyntactic errors in foreign accented speech and whether they are sensitive to error typicality. Spanish natives listened to Spanish sentences in native and foreign (English) accent. ERPs were recorded in response to morphosyntactic violations that were commonly (gender errors) encountered in English accented Spanish or not (number errors). Although sentence comprehension accuracy did not differ across accents, the ERP responses changed as a function of accent and error type. In line with previous studies, gender and number violations in native accented speech elicited LAN-P600 responses. When speech was uttered by foreign speakers, number violations (uncommon errors) showed a P600 effect, while gender violations (common errors) did not elicit late repair processes (reflected by the P600) but an N400 effect. The present results provide evidence that the neural time course of parsing depends not only on speaker's accent, but also on input error typicality.

2019 - When is irony influenced by communicative constraints? ERP evidence supporting interactive models [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Motamed Haeri, A.; Michell, E.; Martin, C. D.

Distinct theoretical proposals have described how communicative constraints (contextual biases, speaker identity) impact verbal irony processing. Modular models assume that social and contextual factors have an effect at a late stage of processing. Interactive models claim that contextual biases are considered early on. The constraint-satisfaction model further assumes that speaker's and context's characteristics can compete at early stages of analysis. The present ERP study teased apart these models by testing the impact of context and speaker features (i.e., speaker accent) on irony analysis. Spanish native speakers were presented with Spanish utterances that were ironic or literal. Each sentence was preceded by a negative or a positive context. Each story was uttered in a native or a foreign accent. Results showed that contextual biases and speaker accent interacted as early as 150 ms during irony processing. Greater N400-like effects were reported for ironic than literal sentences only with positive contexts and native accent, possibly suggesting semantic difficulties when non-prototypical irony was produced by natives. A P600 effect of irony was also reported indicating inferential processing costs. The results support the constraint-satisfaction model and suggest that multiple sources of information are weighted and can interact from the earliest stages of irony analysis.

2018 - The effect of orthographic depth on letter string processing: the case of visual attention span and rapid automatized naming [Articolo su rivista]
Antzaka, A.; Martin, C.; Caffarra, S.; Schloffel, S.; Carreiras, M.; Lallier, M.

The present study investigated whether orthographic depth can increase the bias towards multi-letter processing in two reading-related skills: visual attention span (VAS) and rapid automatized naming (RAN). VAS (i.e., the number of visual elements that can be processed at once in a multi-element array) was tested with a visual 1-back task and RAN was measured in a serial letter naming task that introduced a novel manipulation (some letter sequences formed frequent words). Spanish-Basque and French-Basque bilingual children were tested at early (30 children in 1st and 2nd grade), and more advanced (24 children in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade) stages of reading acquisition to investigate whether they would be differently biased towards multi-letter processing due to reading in two shallow (Spanish, Basque), or a deep and a shallow (French, Basque) orthography. The French-Basque bilinguals, who read in a deep orthography, were expected to rely on larger orthographic units in reading and thus to be more biased towards multi-letter processing in both tasks. This was expected to be reflected by: (a) a uniform distribution of attention across letter strings in the VAS task, and (b) a greater interference of the embedded words on letter-by-letter naming in RAN, leading to longer naming times. The expected group differences were observed in the more advanced readers, with French-Basque bilinguals showing a wider distribution of VAS across letter strings and longer naming times in RAN.

2018 - The impact of foreign accent on irony interpretation [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Michell, E.; Martin, C. D.

In modern multi-cultural societies, conversations between foreign speakers and native listeners have become very common. These exchanges often include the use of figurative language. The present study examines, for the first time, whether native listeners’ non-literal interpretation of discourse is influenced by indexical cues such as speaker accent. Native listeners were presented with ironic and literal Spanish stories uttered in a native or foreign accent (Spanish and British English accents, respectively). Two types of irony were considered: ironic criticism (frequently used) and ironic praise (less frequently used). Participants were asked to rate stories on their level of irony. Results showed an impact of foreign accent on natives’ non-literal interpretation. The effect was evident in the less frequent ironic constructions (ironic praise), with foreign accented utterances considered less ironic than native accented utterances. These findings revealed that native listeners’ figurative interpretation of ironic praise can change depending on indexical cues, with a reduction of pragmatic inferences in the case of foreign accent.

2017 - Addressee identity and morphosyntactic processing in basque allocutive agreement [Articolo su rivista]
Wolpert, M.; Mancini, S.; Caffarra, S.

Information about interlocutor identity is pragmatic in nature and has traditionally been distinguished from explicitly coded linguistic information, including mophosyntax. Study of speaker identity in language processing has questioned this distinction, but addressee identity has been less considered. We used Basque to explore how addressee identity is processed during morphosyntactic analysis. In the familiar register hika, Basque has obligatory allocutive agreement, where verbal morphology represents the gender of a non-argument addressee. We manipulated the gender of the allocutive verb and the congruence of addressee gender in conversations between two interlocutors. Items with person agreement manipulations were included as a control comparison. Basque speakers familiar with hika completed speeded acceptability judgments and unspeeded, offline naturalness ratings for each conversation. Results showed a main effect of addressee identity congruence for naturalness ratings, but there was no main effect for addressee identity congruence for reaction times or accuracy in the acceptability judgment. Interactions and correlations with biographical data showed that the effect of congruence was modulated by the gender of the allocutive verb and that hika proficiency was related to participants' performance for the acceptability judgment. These results show an interaction between morphosyntactic and pragmatic information and are the first experimental data of allocutive processing. In comparison, clear effects were seen for the person agreement condition, indicating that person disagreement is more disruptive to processing than addressee identity incongruence. This study has implications for investigation of the role of extralinguistic information in morphosyntactic processing, and suggests that not all such information plays an equal role.

2017 - Hierarchical levels of representation in language prediction: The influence of first language acquisition in highly proficient bilinguals [Articolo su rivista]
Molinaro, N.; Giannelli, F.; Caffarra, S.; Martin, C.

Language comprehension is largely supported by predictive mechanisms that account for the ease and speed with which communication unfolds. Both native and proficient non-native speakers can efficiently handle contextual cues to generate reliable linguistic expectations. However, the link between the variability of the linguistic background of the speaker and the hierarchical format of the representations predicted is still not clear. We here investigate whether native language exposure to typologically highly diverse languages (Spanish and Basque) affects the way early balanced bilingual speakers carry out language predictions. During Spanish sentence comprehension, participants developed predictions of words the form of which (noun ending) could be either diagnostic of grammatical gender values (transparent) or totally ambiguous (opaque). We measured electrophysiological prediction effects time-locked both to the target word and to its determiner, with the former being expected or unexpected. Event-related (N200–N400) and oscillatory activity in the low beta-band (15–17 Hz) frequency channel showed that both Spanish and Basque natives optimally carry out lexical predictions independently of word transparency. Crucially, in contrast to Spanish natives, Basque natives displayed visual word form predictions for transparent words, in consistency with the relevance that noun endings (post-nominal suffixes) play in their native language. We conclude that early language exposure largely shapes prediction mechanisms, so that bilinguals reading in their second language rely on the distributional regularities that are highly relevant in their first language. More importantly, we show that individual linguistic experience hierarchically modulates the format of the predicted representation.

2017 - Representation and processing of multi-word expressions in the brain [Articolo su rivista]
Siyanova-Chanturia, A.; Conklin, K.; Caffarra, S.; Kaan, E.; van Heuven, W. J. B.

Language comprehension is sensitive to the predictability of the upcoming information. Prediction allows for smooth, expedient and successful communication. While general discourse-based constraints have been investigated in detail, more specific phrase-level prediction has received little attention. We address this gap by exploring the ERPs elicited during the comprehension of English binomials – familiar and predictable multi-word expressions. In Experiment 1a, participants read binomial expressions (knife and fork), infrequent strongly associated phrases (spoon and fork), and semantic violations (theme and fork). In Experiment 1b, participants read the same stimuli without “and”. Experiment 1a revealed that binomials elicited larger P300s and smaller N400s compared to the other conditions, reflecting the activation of a ‘template’ that matches the upcoming information (P300) and pointing to easier semantic integration (N400). In contrast, no differences were observed between binomials and associates in Experiment 1b. We conclude that distinct mechanisms underlie the processing of predicable and novel sequences.

2017 - When the end matters: influence of gender cues during agreement computation in bilinguals [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Barber, H.; Molinaro, N.; Carreiras, M.

The present event-related potential (ERP) study was aimed at testing whether form-function mappings can differently affect sentence comprehension in early bilinguals with a range of linguistic profiles. Basque–Spanish and Spanish–Basque early bilinguals were presented with Spanish sentences with article-noun gender agreement violations. The gender of the target noun could be retrieved based on the word-form (i.e. transparent nouns) or only on a lexical representation (i.e. opaque nouns). While Basque-dominant bilinguals showed an impact of gender-to-ending consistency on agreement computation, Spanish-dominant bilinguals’ agreement processing was not affected by form-function mappings. A multiple regression analysis on early ERP responses from all participants showed that the more Spanish was produced on a daily basis, the easier the detection of gender violation for opaque nouns. The present results suggest that the strength of the lexical representation of gender is not fixed and can change depending on the linguistic habits of early bilinguals.

2017 - Word and object recognition during reading acquisition: MEG evidence [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Martin, C. D.; Lizarazu, M.; Lallier, M.; Zarraga, A.; Molinaro, N.; Carreiras, M.

Studies on adults suggest that reading-induced brain changes might not be limited to linguistic processes. It is still unclear whether these results can be generalized to reading development. The present study shows to which extent neural responses to verbal and nonverbal stimuli are reorganized while children learn to read. MEG data of thirty Basque children (4–8y) were collected while they were presented with written words, spoken words and visual objects. The evoked fields elicited by the experimental stimuli were compared to their scrambled counterparts. Visual words elicited left posterior (200–300 ms) and temporal activations (400–800 ms). The size of these effects increased as reading performance improved, suggesting a reorganization of children's visual word responses. Spoken words elicited greater left temporal responses relative to scrambles (300–700 ms). No evidence for the influence of reading expertise was observed. Brain responses to objects were greater than to scrambles in bilateral posterior regions (200–500 ms). There was a greater left hemisphere involvement as reading errors decreased, suggesting a strengthened verbal decoding of visual configurations with reading acquisition. The present results reveal that learning to read not only influences written word processing, but also affects visual object recognition, suggesting a non-language specific impact of reading on children's neural mechanisms.

2016 - What usage can do: The effect of language dominance on simultaneous bilinguals’ morphosyntactic processing [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Zimnukhova, S.; Mancini, S.

Even when bilinguals learn both languages from birth and achieve high levels of proficiency, they rarely use their languages to the same degree. Recent findings suggest that individual differences in bilingual profile such as the usage of the bilingual’s different languages could affect the way they retrieve and analyse linguistic information, with greater use of linguistic mechanisms from the dominant language. One of the linguistic areas where a wide variety of bilingual performance has been reported is morphosyntax. The present study tests whether language usage can account for a certain amount of the individual variability in morphosyntactic feature extraction. Basque-Spanish simultaneous bilinguals with a range of language dominance profiles were asked to judge the grammatical gender of Spanish nouns the ending of which could provide a reliable cue to gender (i. e., transparent) or not (i. e., opaque). Results showed that the more bilinguals used Basque (i. e., an agglutinative language) on a daily basis, the faster they were at detecting the presence of transparent morphemes relative to opaque nouns. These findings suggest that simultaneous bilinguals have different ways of retrieving grammatical gender depending on their language profile. Language usage can contribute to explaining the presence of individual differences in morphosyntactic feature retrieval.

2015 - Does the ending matter? The role of gender-to-ending consistency in sentence reading [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Barber, H. A.

In many languages, during language comprehension the cognitive system needs to recover grammatical gender features in order to identify agreement dependencies established between different sentence constituents. A two-route model proposes that gender can be retrieved either lexically or computing its correlations with the word-form. However, evidence supporting this model has been collected thus far only with metalinguistic tasks on isolated nouns or word pairs. The present ERP study was aimed at testing whether the system is sensitive to gender formal cues within a sentence context. Specifically, we investigated the time course of gender processing in sentence reading where the target nouns could show a reliable gender-related ending (i.e., transparent nouns) or an ambiguous ending (i.e., opaque nouns). The results showed a greater central-anterior negativity for transparent nouns than for opaque nouns between 200 ms and 500 ms, suggesting that the system can rapidly detect reliable formal cues to gender. In addition, gender agreement violations showed a LAN-P600 pattern that was not modulated by the gender-to-ending consistency. Taken together, these results confirm that also during sentence comprehension, distributional gender cues conveyed by noun endings can be detected. This finding is compatible with the existence of a form-based route. The formal cues to gender are detected at an early stage, this probably being part of the word recognition process. Whereas this distributional information does not seem to be crucial in computing agreement dependencies within a sentence context.

2015 - Is the noun ending a cue to grammatical gender processing? An ERP study on sentences in Italian [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Siyanova Chanturia, A.; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Vespignani, F.; Cacciari, Cristina

Gender-to-ending consistency has been shown to influence grammatical gender retrieval in isolated word presentation. Notwithstanding this wealth of evidence, the exact role and the time course of the processing of this distributional information remain unclear. This ERP study investigated if and when the brain detects gender-to-ending consistency in sentences containing Italian determiner-noun pairs. Determiners either agreed or disagreed in gender with nouns whose endings were reliable or misleading cues to gender (Transparent and Irregular nouns, respectively). Transparent nouns elicited an increased frontal negativity and a late posterior positivity compared to Irregular nouns (350-950ms), suggesting that the system is sensitive to gender-to-ending consistency from relatively early stages of processing. But gender agreement violations evoked a similar LAN-P600 pattern for both types of nouns. These findings provide evidence for an early detection of reliable gender-related endings during sentence reading.

2015 - On the left anterior negativity (LAN): The case of morphosyntactic agreement: A Reply to Tanner et al. [Articolo su rivista]
Molinaro, N.; Barber, H. A.; Caffarra, S.; Carreiras, M.

2015 - Second language syntactic processing revealed through event-related potentials: An empirical review [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Molinaro, N.; Davidson, D.; Carreiras, M.

Learning a second language (L2) can be crucial in the present globalized society. However, reaching the level of L1 performance of native speakers is still a challenge for many. Distinct factors could account for the persistent gap observed between natives' and non-natives' syntactic abilities: L1-L2 differences, AoA, proficiency, L2 immersion duration, L2 training duration. Although different theoretical approaches described the role of these several factors, not all studies using on-line measures have investigated them comprehensively and consistently. The present work reviews available ERP studies on L2 syntactic analysis in order to establish the relative weight of each factor on the time course of L2 processing. Logistic regression analyses were performed on the presence or absence of ERP effects reported in response to L2 syntactic violations, including all the influential factors as categorical independent variables. The results showed that immersion duration has an influence on the ERP correlates linked to early mechanisms of syntactic processing, while the global proficiency level has an impact on the ERP correlates related to late, language-monitoring activity.

2014 - Two sides of gender: ERP evidence for the presence of two routes during gender agreement processing [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, S.; Janssen, N.; Barber, H. A.

The present ERP study aimed at providing evidence for the existence of two routes in the brain for the processing of morphosyntactic features during language comprehension; a lexical route which retrieves grammatical properties stored in the lexicon without reliance on formal cues, and a form-based route that takes advantage of sub-lexical units strongly related to a specific grammatical class. In the experiment, we investigated grammatical gender agreement processing in Spanish article-noun word pairs using a grammaticality judgment task. Article-noun pairs either agreed or did not agree in gender. Noun transparency was manipulated such that the ending could be strongly associated with a specific gender class (i.e., transparent nouns) or not (i.e., opaque nouns). A visual half-field method was employed and ERPs were recorded in response to the target nouns in order to disentangle the initial hemisphere-specific computations of gender processing. ERP results showed that, while both hemispheres compute agreement dependencies, the left hemisphere is sensitive to the presence of formal gender cues at an early stage (i.e., 350-500. ms) indicating the presence of a form-based route. The right hemisphere showed an ERP effect of transparency, but later than the left hemisphere (i.e., 500-750. ms). These findings confirm the presence of two routes to gender, which can be differently used depending on the availability of transparent endings. In addition, the results showed hemispheric differences in the time course of the form-based route.

2013 - Gender-to-ending consistency and agreement processing in Italian: two independent effects? [Poster]
Caffarra, S.; Siyanova Chanturia, S.; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Vespignani, F.; Cacciari, Cristina

Behavioral studies on gender-to-ending consistency in Romance language showed that people take advantage of these word-form cues when judging gender identity or agreement. However, it is still unclear when the linguistic processor identifies word-ending cues to gender, and whether this information affects syntactic agreement processing. This ERP study investigated the time course of gender agreement processing with Italian nouns whose word ending was a reliable or a misleading cue to gender (transparent, irregular nouns). The nouns were preceded by gender agreeing or disagreeing determiners and were embedded in sentences. The ERPs on target nouns showed main effects of Transparency and Gender Agreement. Specifically, transparent nouns elicited an increased frontal negativity (350-750 ms) and a posterior positivity (750-950 ms) compared to irregular nouns. This suggests that the system is sensitive to gender-to-ending consistency from early stages of processing and that this information remains available until later processing stages. In addition, gender agreement violations evoked a LAN (350-500 ms) followed by a P600 (550-950 ms). The lack of interaction between Agreement and Transparency suggests that agreement processing is relatively unaffected by gender-to-ending consistency.

Caffarra, Sendy; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Cacciari, Cristina

APR 13-16, 2013

2013 - How early is grammatical gender information available to the reader? [Poster]
Caffarra, Sendy; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Cacciari, Cristina

Syntax-first models (Friederici, 2002) posit that syntactic analysis starts at a very early stage (100-300 ms). Consistently, a number of MEG and ERP studies have shown syntactic effects as early as 150 ms after stimulus onset (Dykker et al., 2009; Pulvermuller et al., 2007). The aim of the present study was to establish how early grammatical gender became available to the reader. Given its important role in syntactic structure building (especially in Romance languages), we hypothesized that grammatical gender information should become available between 100 and 300 ms, as predicted by syntax-first models. To this aim, we conducted an ERP study adopting a paradigm designed to monitor an early ERP component, the N2pc. This attentional component was chosen because of its early sensitivity to linguistic variables (Dell’Acqua et al., 2007). 600 Italian noun-adjective pairs whose gender agreed or disagreed were selected. The noun was presented centrally and was followed by two lateralized stimuli (the adjective and a distractor) presented for 200 ms. Participants judged noun-adjective gender agreement. ERP results showed that agreement violations influenced the amplitude of the N2pc between 170 and 310 ms. Specifically, a greater negativity was observed at P7 for the agreement condition relative to the disagreement condition. These results suggest that grammatical gender information is available at an early stage of language comprehension (100-300 ms).

2013 - The interaction between language and visual spatial attention systems in grammatical gender processing. An N2pc study [Articolo su rivista]
Caffarra, Sendy; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Cacciari, Cristina

This ERP study employed an N2pc paradigm to investigate possible functional interactions between mechanisms of visual spatial attention and grammatical gender processing. Previous studies showed that the N2pc, an attention-related ERP component, can be modulated by lexical-semantic variables. However, it remains to be seen whether the N2pc can be affected by grammatical features as well. To test this, we conducted an N2pc study with Italian word pairs whose grammatical gender either agreed or disagreed. Participants read a centrally presented noun followed by an adjective in a lateralized position during a gender agreement task. Between 170 and 310ms, the N2pc was elicited contralaterally to the adjective position with a left-lateralized effect of the agreement manipulation. These results suggest that this component could be influenced by grammatical features, supporting a functional interaction between processes mediating visual spatial attention and agreement computation.

2013 - The Role of Gender-To-Ending Consistency in Italian Agreement Processing [Abstract in Rivista]
Caffarra, Sendy; Siyanova Chanturia, A.; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Vespignani, F.; Cacciari, Cristina

SPR 53rd annual meeting

2013 - The role of the word ending during the processing of gender agreement in Italian. [Poster]
Caffarra, S.; Siyanova Chanturia, A.; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Vespignani, F.; Cacciari, Cristina

The role of the word ending during the processing of gender agreement in Italian.

2011 - Il genere grammaticale in italiano: quanto è precoce la sua elaborazione? [Abstract in Atti di Convegno]
Caffarra, S.; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Cacciari, Cristina

Introduzione: Le lingue romanze appaiono le migliori candidate per lo studio del genere grammaticale, data l’importanza che rivestono i processi di accordo. Numerosi autori (Bates et al., 1996) hanno sottolineato come la trasparenza ortografica-fonologica del suffisso possa facilitare l’elaborazione di genere grammaticale, rendendola più rapida o più accurata rispetto a parole fonologicamente opache (dove il suffisso non è informativo) o irregolari (dove il suffisso è un cattivo predittore del genere). Un’altra variabile rivelatasi utile per i processi d’accordo è il genere biologico: nelle parole riferite ad esseri umani il sesso biologico del referente rafforza l’informazione di genere grammaticale, velocizzandone l’elaborazione (Vigliocco et al., 1999). Al fine di indagare i fattori che influenzano l’elaborazione del genere grammaticale è stato condotto uno studio comportamentale sull’Italiano, lingua particolarmente indicata data la sua elevata regolarità. Metodo: sono state presentate 336 coppie di parole (nome-aggettivo), manipolando due variabili: l’accordo grammaticale e la tipologia di nome (trasparente, opaco, irregolare con genere biologico o arbitrario). 24 soggetti (16 donne) avrebbero dovuto giudicare il grado di accordo tra nome e aggettivo. Risultati: I nomi trasparenti biologici fanno registrare le risposte più accurate e rapide in assoluto. Di seguito, troviamo le parole trasparenti e biologiche opache, con risposte più lente rispetto ai nomi biologici trasparenti, ma più rapide rispetto alle parole opache. Infine, i nomi irregolari mostrano i tempi di risposta e l’accuratezza più elevati rispetto alle altre tipologie di parole. Conclusioni: I risultati comportamentali mostrano che: 1. la trasparenza ortografica fonologica del suffisso, pure essendo un’informazione ridondante, influenza l’elaborazione di genere grammaticale; 2. Anche la presenza di un’informazione concettuale come quella del genere biologico ha un effetto sull’analisi dell’accordo.

2011 - Psychological activities in neurorehabilitation: From research to clinical practice [Articolo su rivista]
Galante, E.; Gazzi, L.; Caffarra, S.

The goal of the present review was to present a critical description of psychological research and practice in neurorehabilitation with regard to the efficacy of treatments proposed in the clinical and neuropsychological field. PubMed, Web of Science and Cochrane databases were searched by using the keywords "psychological intervention" and one of the following neurological diseases: "stroke", "TBI", " Parkinson", "ALS", "multiple sclerosis", "dementia". Randomized and pseudo-randomized trials, reviews and single case studies were included. We identified 134 papers: 54 concerning dementia, 24 stroke, 20 multiple sclerosis, 16 Parkinson, 13 TBI and 7 ALS. Most of these papers concern the evaluation of the effectiveness of psychological treatments in chronic or progressive neurological diseases. However, they are often characterized by methodological limitations, such as a small sample size, absence of a follow-up study or a control group. Further, high quality studies could help better understand treatment effects. There was some evidence for effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural and cognitive therapies, often applied both in clinical and neuropsychological interventions. Evidence coming from individualized treatment and single case studies are also described. In line with the data collected, we summarize some evidence available for psychological testing and treatment and argue that a multidisciplinary approach and a multidimensional evaluation should be adopted. According to this position, both randomized trials and single-case studies could be taken into account. Finally, it is proposed that in order to establish the efficacy of a given treatment, both standardized and individualized measures are to be used. © PI-ME, Pavia 2011.

2011 - The influence of the noun suffix in the processing of grammatical gender in Italian [Poster]
Caffarra, Sendy; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Cacciari, Cristina

The aim of the current study is to further investigate the role of the noun suffix in the processing of grammatical gender. We used nouns in which the final vowel is consistent with the typical gender-to-ending distribution in Italian (transparent nouns ending in -aFEM and in –oMASC; e.g. bibitaFEM, “drink” ); nouns in which the final vowel is not informative of the gender (opaque nouns, ending in –e; e.g. verniceFEM, “paint”); and nouns whose grammatical gender does not conform to the gender that would be expected from the suffix (irregular nouns; e.g. manoFEM, “hand”). Previous research suggests that when the orthographical-phonological information conveyed by the noun suffix is inconsistent with gender, lexical processing is slower and less accurate (Bates, Devescovi, Pizzamiglio, D’Amico & Hernandez, 1995). However, the morphological status of the noun suffix and the time course with which the suffix is used in processing semantic gender and arbitrary grammatical gender are still unclear. To test the influence of the noun suffix on the gender processing, we used a paradigm highly similar to that employed by Dell’Acqua, Pesciarelli, Jolicouer, Eimer & Peressotti (2007). In our behavioural study we contrasted the role of the noun suffix in Italian nouns characterized either by a semantic gender (e.g., mammaFEM, “mother”) or by an arbitrary gender (e.g., lampadaFEM, “lamp”), with transparent, opaque or irregular endings. The noun was followed by two lateralized stimuli (an adjective and a distractor) presented one to the left and one to the right of a central fixation cross. Each noun was paired with a gender agreeing or disagreeing adjective (e.g bibitaFEM gasataFEM /gasatoMASC, “drink fizzy”) and participants were asked to judge whether they agree or not. Our results showed that: 1. the gender-to-ending consistency of the suffix affected the computation of grammatical agreement; 2. the effect was stronger for biological than for arbitrary gender nouns. Our data confirm the direction of the effect of orthographical-phonological transparency, further showing the influence of biological gender.

2011 - The influence of the noun suffix in the processing of grammatical gender in Italian. [Poster]
Caffarra, S.; Pesciarelli, Francesca; Cacciari, Cristina

The aim of the current study is to further investigate the role of the noun’s suffix in processing grammatical gender. We used nouns in which the final vowel is consistent with the typical gender-to-ending distribution in Italian (transparent nouns ending in -aFEM and in –oMASC); nouns in which the final vowel is not informative on the gender (opaque nouns, ending in -e); and nouns whose grammatical gender does not conform to the gender that would be expected from the suffix (irregular nouns). Previous research suggests that when the orthographical-phonological information conveyed by the noun suffix is inconsistent with gender, lexical processing is slower and less accurate. However, the morphological status of the noun suffix and the time course with which the suffix is used in processing semantic gender and arbitrary grammatical gender are still unclear. To test the influence of the noun suffix in processing gender, we used a paradigm highly similar to that employed by Dell’Acqua et al. (2007). In our study we contrasted the role of the noun suffix in Italian nouns characterized either by a semantic gender (e.g., mamma, mother) or by an arbitrary gender (e.g., lampada, lamp), with transparent, opaque or irregular endings. The noun was followed by two lateralized stimuli (an adjective and a distractor) presented one to the left and one to the right of a central fixation cross. Each noun was paired with a gender agreeing or disagreeing adjective and participants were asked to judge whether they agree or not. Our results showed that: 1.the gender-to-ending consistency of the suffix affected the computation of grammatical agreement early on; 2. the effect was stronger for biological than for arbitrary gender nouns. The results are discussed with respect to the morphological status of the noun suffix.