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The Experimental Syntax Lab (Xsyn Lab), opened in the Fall of 2007 by Dr. Chung-hye Han, supports research for both Dr. Han and Dr. Keir Moulton (the co-directors of the lab) and their graduate students. Work in the lab has supported the publication of 26 journal articles and book chapters, 17 conference and workshop proceedings, 26 presentations, 4 MA theses and 1 PhD dissertation.

What is the main research program of the Xsyn lab?

The main research program of the Xsyn Lab is to study natural language sentence structure and its interaction with meaning. In particular, many of the projects that are underway are about identifying the nature of syntactic relation between a pronoun and another expression in the sentence that gives it its meaning. This relation is called binding, and there has been some debate in the theoretical literature as to whether syntax plays any role in binding. One of the exciting results obtained from a series of experiments is that the effect of syntactic constraint on binding can be detected at the earliest stages of processing a pronoun. These results are very interesting because it informs linguistic theory of binding and emphasizes the important role syntax plays in interpretation of pronouns.

How are Linguistics students involved in the lab?

Graduate students do much of their research in the lab. They work as RAs on the lab's research projects and they also work on their thesis using lab resources, under the supervision of Dr. Han and Dr. Moulton.

Undergraduate students are also involved in the lab. They may work as undergraduate RAs, assisting with the design, implementation, and running of linguistic experiments. Undergraduate students are also involved in the lab through participation as subjects in our research projects, earning course credits through the departmental Research Participation System.

Both undergraduate and graduate RAs in the lab are very much involved in all the research that is taking place at all stages: the design of the experiments, creating stimuli, implementing the experiments, running the experiments, analysis, and writing.

How are research projects designed and implemented?

Once a research question is identified, data needs to be collected. The data consists of native speakers’ judgments on how acceptable test sentences are, how the test sentences are interpreted, and how these test sentences are processed; these are accessed using various experimental methods. For example, a research participant will sit in front of a computer and do a task. These tasks could involve watching a video clip describing a context and answering whether a given test sentence can be true in that context, or reading a sentence and rating how acceptable and natural it is. A participant can also read different parts of a sentence on his or her own pace, by clicking on a mouse to reveal each word in a sentence, and a measurement of how long it takes to read different parts of the sentence is recorded. How participants process sentences can be also accessed by tracking their eye movements (using eye-tracking technology) as they read or hear a sentence.

Working with Dr. Han and Dr. Moulton has given me invaluable experience in designing and performing experimental research, as well as an opportunity to explore syntax from a cognitive perspective that isn't taught in the core curriculum.

-Trevor Block, MA student

Dr. Han, Dr. Moulton, and the Xsyn Lab team have been incredibly generous in extending their knowledge and support. When I present ongoing research to the lab, their feedback not only helps me to improve my current work, but also motivates me to delve even deeper into a topic, or to consider a different angle. The lab has been invaluable for immersing me in the experimental research process. I have been involved in creating experimental stimuli, engaging with participants, and analyzing statistical results. 

-Sara Williamson, MA Student

What is the next exciting research project being developed in the Xsyn lab?

Something interesting that has come up in the popular media is the issue of singular “they” (for example: “I don’t know who did this, but they must be bad”). Most people would claim (wrongly) that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical. It isn’t (and never has been — Shakespeare used it). This experimental work could show that even what people think of as colloquial or sloppy language (which it isn’t) has a complex grammar and can be studied scientifically.

For more information about the Experimental Syntax Lab, visit the Xsyn Lab website or contact xsyn at sfu.ca.