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The representation of syntax in English and Mandarin Chinese

   Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

About the Project

How syntax (language structure) is mentally represented in the brain is an ancient and challenging question in cognitive sciences. Psycholinguistic traditions treat syntax as a symbolic system based on arbitrarily-defined, innate rules. Studies on syntax are therefore constrained by the heterogeneity and idiosyncrasies of syntax across languages (e.g., the apple in a basket in English would be structured as an in-a-basket apple in Chinese). To reconcile cross-linguistic differences, we need to see through the syntactic form (the symbolic appearance of the structure) and uncover the mental representation underneath (how the structure is neurally encoded in the brain).

The proposed PhD project adopts an embodied perspective in studying the mental representation of syntax. Embodied cognition theories argue that mind and body are causally interdependent. Semantics (meaning), for instance, has been shown to base on sensorimotor and affective simulation (e.g., the meaning of apple is represented in our bodily experience of interacting with an actual apple). Despite its different forms across languages, syntax may be grounded in bodily representations that are shared across the globe.

We will test how syntax may be embodied in common experience using behavioural, eye tracking and electroencephalography (EEG). In particular, we will focus how speech prosody and hand actions influence the processing of garden-path sentences (e.g., the old man the boat / 他喜欢喝酒的朋友). Such sentences require re-interpretation of their structures (e.g., from the old man / the boat to the old / man the boat; from 他喜欢喝酒 / 的朋友 to 他喜欢 / 喝酒的朋友).

The project will provide an understanding of how syntax is mentally represented, and underpins the development of body-based language training methods in educational and clinical settings.

Entry Requirements:
Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a subject related to the project. This could be Cognitive or Experimental Psychology, or Psycholinguistics. Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor. Candidates who speak English or Chinese as their first language will be favourably considered.

For international students we also offer a unique 4 year PhD programme that gives you the opportunity to undertake an accredited Teaching Certificate whilst carrying out an independent research project across a range of biological, medical and health sciences. For more information please visit

Funding Notes

Applications are invited from self-funded students. This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).
Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. The full Equality, diversity and inclusion statement can be found on the website View Website


- Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617–645.
- Glenberg, A. M., & Gallese, V. (2012). Action-based language: a theory of language acquisition, comprehension, and production. Cortex, 48(7), 905–922.
- Kreiner, H., & Eviatar, Z. (2014). The missing link in the embodiment of syntax: prosody. Brain and Language, 137, 91–102.
- Yao, B., & Scheepers, C. (2018). Silent reading of direct speech quotations promotes low relative-clause attachment in English. Cognition, 176, 248-254.

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