Welcome to Holger Mitterer's Website!

The southernmost European psycholinguist

My carrier has followed a north-south pattern. After studying in Bielfeld, Germany (52.0°N), I moved south for my PhD in Maastricht, The Netherlands (50.8° N) and then north again (51.8° N) to Nijmegen, The Netherlands, for a position at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. This has hence been an international career, but, geographically, it was quite limited. spanning only 1.2° degrees of latitude.

The next move had to be south again, and it is, only slightly further this time: to 35.9°N. Here I an now an associate professor at the Department of Cognitive Science of the University of Malta. If you are interested in how life is on my Malta, have a look here

Over the last years, my work has focused on the architecture of spoken-word recognition, with a special focus on the lexical and pre-lexical representations involved. (Mitterer, Scharenborg, & McQueen, 2013, Cognition; Mitterer, Kim, & Cho, 2016, Journal of Phonetics, these collaborators' names providing a hint where this picture to the left was taken). I recently also foray into areas that are obvious when working on Maltese, such as perception of consonant clusters (Maltese has clusters of glottal and oral stops as in qtates Engl., cats), gemination, and morphological decomposition. My interest in speech perception has also led to forays into other domains, such as speech production (Mitterer & Müsseler, 2013, AP&P) and colour perception (Mitterer & de Ruiter, 2008, Psychological Science). On this page, you'll find a short bio and some "featured" research.

Research Examples

Letter's don't matter

If one looks through Cognitive-Psychology textbooks, it is apparent that psychologists consider visual-word recognition as the primary form of word recognition. Some textbooks even have chapters on "Language Comprehension" that ignore the spoken modality altogether. Newflash for Psychology: Spoken communication is orthogenetically and phylogenetically primary, so you have to deal with it first.

It is hence no surprise that the field of psychology views spoken-word recognition as a variant of visual-word recognition, with orthograpy shaping and being important for spoken-word recognition. The strongest claim even is that learning to read influences how you perceive speech. Holding this view becomes quite unlikely once you taught a phonetics class ... . The problem here is that the two types of word recognition deal with massively different computational problems.

For written-words, there are variations in font, and that's basically it. Speech is a tiny bit more variable than that. For instance, "prowly" is a word of the English language (just say it out loud often enough, then you get it). Only psychologists mostly don't realize that because they think that speech is just like print, an illusion that is caused by learning to read.

So, we tested whether, in conversational speech, listener really care about orthography (because they then would go mad with all the inconistencies), and, indeed, we found that letter's don't matter. When hearing sentences with deletions (like "herring" produced without initial /h/), the orthographic status of the deleted segment does not matter.

Showing this exploited that the glottal stop is phonetically quite similar in German and Maltese, but a letter only in Maltese (see to the left). Field of visual-word recognition, the ball is in your court.

Improve your second-language listening skills

Do you speak English as a second language well, but still have trouble understanding movies with unfamiliar accents, such as Brad Pitt's southern accent in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds? Or indeed, Ewan McGregor's Scottish accent in Trainspotting? In a study, published in PLoS ONE on November 11, 2009, we (James McQueen and I) show how you can improve your second-language listening ability by watching the movie with subtitles--as long as these subtitles are in the same language as the film. Subtitles in one's native language, the default in some European countries, may actually be counter-productive to learning to understand foreign speech.

We show for the first time that listeners can tune in to an unfamiliar regional accent in a foreign language. Dutch students showed improvements in their ability to recognise Scottish or Australian English after only 25 minutes of exposure to video material. English subtitling during exposure enhanced this learning effect; Dutch subtitling reduced it. So the next time you watch a DVD in a foreign language, and you want to improve your listening skills, you know what to do.

An interesting point to be made here is that this applied finding came out of a long series of papers on fundamental research on speech perception. As it turns out a good theory is quite practical indeed.