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Birds-of-Paradise, eye trackers and EEGs: Doing psycholinguistics in the cloud rainforest of PNG

Indigenous Languages, IYIL, Processing, Shape

Date: 18 October 2019

In June, Centre researchers Hannah Sarvasy and Alba Tuninetti arrived in the village of Towet, in the Saruwaged Mountains of PNG, carrying more than the usual field kit – theirs included two mobile electroencephalograph headsets (EEG) and an eye-tracker.

Hannah, a Centre alumna and affiliate, believes that the pair and their collaborators at the MARCS Institute (WSU) have broken new ground in using cutting-edge technology, on-site in a remote community, to further psycholinguistic research on an indigenous language.

“We were able to integrate purely lab-based psycholinguistic approaches with the description and documentation of a remote language community,” says Hannah. “We hope that combining forces will help answer questions about the universality or generalisability of cognitive mechanisms to under-studied language groups.”

The language in question is Nungon, which Hannah has been studying since 2011, publishing a noted grammar as her PhD (Brill, 2017). Choosing to “take another angle” on Nungon, her post-doc with CoEDL involved one of the few longitudinal studies of children acquiring a Papuan language. Five Nungon children were tracked for two years, recorded for one hour each month. Hannah is now doing a more intensive repeat with a second group of three children over just five months, recording them for more hours per month.

Hannah Sarvasy runs her adopted niece, Sirewen, in the eye-tracking study while Research Assistant Lyn Ogate looks on. 
Hannah Sarvasy runs her adopted niece, Sirewen, in the eye-tracking study while Research Assistant Lyn Ogate looks on.

“I’ve gone from describing the language, to a longitudinal study of how children learn it, to now doing psycholinguistic work, so spanning three sub-disciplines within linguistics which are generally pretty discrete,” she says.

The idea for the psycholinguistic experiments first arose when Hannah met fellow Centre Post-docs Alba Tuninetti and Karen Mulak at CoEDLFest 2016. After securing funding, including Hannah’s DECRA and two rounds of the Centre’s Transdisciplinary Innovation Project funding, Hannah, Alba and two other MARCS researchers arrived in Towet village this year to carry out four experiments. Hannah, Alba and Karen’s three experiments focused on the switch-reference markers that appear in the very long sentences – called clause chains – which are a central feature of Nungon, as well as on ethnic bias and word learning.

 ‘Yawan International’ airstrip, the only access point for outsiders to the Nungon-speaking region.
‘Yawan International’ airstrip, the only access point for outsiders to the Nungon-speaking region. Towet village is about an hour's hike away from the airstrip, across the Uruwa River.

In the first experiment, participants were played correct and ungrammatical sentences while hooked up to Alba’s EEG. “We’re now looking to see whether the brainwaves show a predicted ‘surprised’ response when hearing the ungrammatical switch-reference markers,” Hannah explains. “It will help us see the relationship between the switch marker and what we think it is doing grammatically.”

For the second, Hannah and CoEDL PhD student Jenny Yu designed a mobile eye-tracking experiment to investigate people’s eye movements while listening to and producing clause chains.

“This is pioneering work, because in all the theories about how people form and process sentences, such a tight connection between clauses has not been proven for any language.”

Beyond the exciting new datasets, Hannah is keen to emphasise the key enabling role of the local community and the importance of building long-term relationships. The researchers marvelled at the speed and ease with which participants were processed for the experiments.

“All the researchers were overjoyed with the number of participants they got for their projects, which was way more than we expected,” Hannah reports. “The community planned for months to ensure that we had a smooth and productive field trip, and local young people praised the opportunities they got assisting with the research. I’ve heard a lot of negative stereotypes about working with PNG communities, but the community I work with has consistently proven them to be baseless.”

Hannah Sarvasy and Alba Tuninetti confer while star Research Assistant Lyn Ogate runs a participant in the eye-tracking study. 
Hannah Sarvasy and Alba Tuninetti confer while star Research Assistant Lyn Ogate runs a participant in the eye-tracking study.

The project was also a fitting final collaboration for departing Centre Research Fellow Dr Alba Tuninetti, who gained valuable field experience, including being flexible when certain things did not go to plan – such as a volcanic eruption delaying the arrival of solar equipment! (Alba takes on the role of Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Bilkent University in Turkey early next year.)

“We are discussing how to continue our collaboration, not only for this current project but examining other languages, such as Dzongkha (Bhutanese), and potentially Turkish, which also uses clause chains,” Hannah says.

Alba Tuninetti with (L to R) research assistants and organisers Lyn Ogate, Stanly Girip and James Jio. 
Alba Tuninetti with (L to R) Research Assistants and organisers Lyn Ogate, Stanly Girip and James Jio.


(Main image: Research assistant Udzel affixes EEG nodes to participant Boas Girip as Alba Tuninetti confirms the EEG system is functioning correctly.

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