The central theme of my research is the processing of language in the human mind. I first started with an interest in lexical representation in monolingual speakers (i.e. how are words represented and processed in the mental lexicon?), then extended my research to bilingual speakers (i.e. how do the two systems interact in a bilingual mind?), and later to the processing of larger chunks (i.e. how do people understand/produce sentences?). Thus, the linguistic unit I study may be as small as a sound (e.g. the vowel [e]) or as big as a sentence or a discourse. What remains unchanged, though, is the data-driven nature of my work, as it heavily relies on empirical evidence (from corpora or behavioral experiments) and statistical analysis.
I work on Chinese (Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese), English, and French. Below is a sample of previous/ongoing projects that I have been involved in.
Phonological neighborhood structureWords in a lexicon are not isolated islands, instead they are connected by various relations. One such relation is defined by how similar they sound to each other. Similar-sounding words are likely to influence each other in the process of speech comprehension/production. My previous work on English phonological neighborhoods (Yao, 2011; Gahl et al., 2012) unveiled the phonetic features of words from dense neighborhoods (i.e. words with many similar-sounding peers) compared with words from sparse neighborhoods. Some of my recent projects are examining the neighborhood structures of French and Mandarin.
Bilingualsim and phonological acquisition
So far my work on bilingualism has focused on cross-langauge influence on phonological acquisition. In collaboration with my colleagues, Charles Chang, Erin Haynes and Russell Rhodes, I have investigated the acquistion of English and Mandarin Chinese sounds by heritage Chinese speakers in the U.S. (i.e. people who grew up in Chinese immigrant families in the States). More recently, Charles and I also started to investigate the influence of Mandarin on the phonological systems of speakers of other Chinese dialects. Results from an experimental study of Shanghainese-Mandarin bilingual speakers are reported in a forthcoming paper (Yao & Chang, 2016).
Chinese syntactic variationNatural language production is inevitably variable. The same word may be pronounced slightly differently by different speakers or even by the same speaker in different contexts. Similarly, a message may be encoded in syntactically different forms with largely the same meaning. What is interesting is to find out (1) whether the variation is (at least partially) predictable, (2) if so, what are the predictors, and (3) what the predicting patterns can tell us about how people process language. In this line of research, my work focuses on word order variation involving a number of syntactic structures in Mandarin Chinese, including the famous BA construction (Yao, 2014)) and the ditransitive construction (Yao & Liu, 2010). I use data from large-scale corpora to model syntactic variation, and connect findings from the models with theories of sentence production.
Comprehension of implied meanings in Chinese sentencesThis is an ongoing project in collaboration with Prof. Shi Dingxu. We examine the understanding of a number of sentence-level adverbs in Chinese sentences. A common feature of these adverbs is that they all imply the existence of some background proposition that is relevant to the current proposition, however, the behavior of these adverbs cannot be fully explained by current theories of presupposition and implicature. Our work along this line uses both corpus-based analysis and behavioral experiments to explore how average speakers understand these sentences.