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Speaker Sex Affects Language Processing

Update Date: Nov 19, 2013 06:58 PM EST

The sex of speakers may affect the way we process what they're saying, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Kansas found that the sex of a speaker affected how quickly listeners identified words grammatically that there was evidence that even higher-level processes are affected by the speaker.

Using Spanish words, which have grammatical gender, researchers found that the sex of a speaker affected how fast and accurately listeners could identify a list of Spanish words as masculine or feminine.

The findings revealed that participants were slower and less grammatically correct when there was a mismatch between the sex of the speaker and the gender of the word.

Researchers said the latest findings are surprising because grammar and syntax have been thought for decades to be automatic and untouchable by other brain processes.

However, the latest study suggests that our brains process words using exemplars that contain and index information about both the word and the speaker.

"Our study shows that all that other information does influence not just word recognition processing, but higher-level processes associated with grammar," said Michael Vitevitch, KU professor of psychology, said in a news release.

While linguists and psychologists have debated whether memory is abstract or exemplar, Vitevitch believes that there is evidence for both.

"We didn't evolve to be efficient. We evolved to get the job done," he explained. "We need both systems."

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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