Thinking Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi's Neuroscience of Language Lab

Meera Al Kaabi, a PhD student in linguistics at NYU New York, returns to Abu Dhabi to conduct research on Emirati Arabic speakers at NYU Abu Dhabi's Neuroscience of Language Lab.

Meera Al Kaabi is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in linguistics at NYU New York, but her path to a doctoral degree started right here in the UAE. This spring, she is back in Abu Dhabi to conduct research on Emirati Arabic speakers at NYU Abu Dhabi's Neuroscience of Language Lab. 

For example, the English word "writer" is composed of two morphemes: "write" and "er." "Write" indicates the action, while "er" indicates the doer of that action. In Arabic, morphemes work differently, in that they're bound up with the word: "They're not linear in the same way, and it's harder to pull these morphemes apart," Al Kaabi said.

It's accepted that Arabic and English morphemes are structured differently, but Al Kaabi is trying to figure out if the brain processes Arabic morphemes differently.

Arabic is additionally complicated because of "diglossia," a situation where two or more dialects are used to form a single language community. (The use of both Modern Standard Arabic, which is deployed in news, media, and academia, and the Arabic dialects, which are spoken in everyday conversation, is an example of a linguistic diglossia). "I'm running two experiments," Al Kaabi said. "The first one uses words from Modern Standard Arabic, which are presented to the participants visually. The second one is auditory and uses words from Emirati Arabic, and the words are presented auditorily."

With the experiments she is running at NYUAD, she employs a process called priming, of which there are different kinds. In semantic priming, a subject would be given one word, say "book," and another, say, "school," and asked if the two words are related in meaning. Another kind of priming deals with processing the internal structure of words. For example, in Arabic, a subject could be shown "katab" (meaning “he wrote”), followed by "kitaab" (book); in another case, the subject could be shown "sakat" (which means “he was silent”), followed by "kitaab" (book). The task is to decide if "kitaab" is a word in the language or not. Because the two words in the first case share bits of their structure, the subject should be able to answer faster in the first case than in the second. The purpose of the experiment isn't to test the response of the subjects; it's to see what happens in the brain when the subjects see or hear the word.

"I'm interested in two crucial aspects of Arabic word structure: roots and patterns, or templates," she explained. "These are really important in the field of morphology, and there has been a long debate about whether these are genuine morphological units or not."

The experiment Al Kaabi is conducting in Abu Dhabi is straightforward. Subjects are placed in the magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine at the Neuroscience of Language Lab, which measures brain activity in real-time through magnetic sensors. Subjects are asked if the words they see or hear are words in Arabic or not. "That's it. It's really simple. This is the first time this kind of experimental paradigm has been applied to Arabic,” Al Kaabi said.

Al Kaabi received her Bachelor of Arts in English language and literature from UAE University in 2008, where she also took classes in linguistics. With her undergraduate adviser in the Department of Linguistics at UAEU, she had the opportunity to study the effects of aphasia — a condition that is caused by brain trauma and affects language ability — in an Arabic-speaking aphasic patient. While an undergraduate, she presented her aphasia research at the first joint NYUAD-UAEU neurolinguistics workshop held at the NYUAD Institute, where she met Marantz, David Poeppel, NYU professor of psychology and neural science, and Liina Pylkkänen, NYU assistant professor of linguistics and psychology. Later that year, she applied and was admitted into the Ph.D. program in linguistics at NYU New York.

Al Kaabi is now writing her dissertation, and said that she is particularly attracted to the field of neurolinguistics because it provides a fascinating and important source of data that can be used to support or refute theoretical models: "There have been many debates in the field of linguistics, and neurolinguistic research provides evidence for some particular questions that are theoretical. It's a different kind of argument than a theoretical one, because you have data to back it up."

Photo credit: Filos segundo logo (flipped) by Filosofias filosoficas from Wikipedia Commons. The image used here is a cropped version of the original.

With her adviser Alec Marantz, a NYU professor of linguistics and psychology, Al Kaabi studies the way human language is processed and represented in the brain. "In my case, I look at Arabic, a language where words display a different structure than in languages like English. While a complex word in English is made of a base and one or more suffixes or prefixes (called morphemes in linguistics), the constituents of a complex word in Arabic are intertwined with or packed on top of each other," she explained.