Francesco Vespignani

Research directions | Internal collaborations | Funding | External collaborations | Selected Publications


How does the cognitive system deals with the integration of sources of information that are relevant for human language processing? How does the brain circuitry implements such cognitive mechanisms?
We think these are the more relevant questions of cognitive neuroscience of language.
We study these aspects of cognitive neuroscience by using both behavioural (reaction times and eye movements) and physiological (EEG) indexes.
Most of our work is related to higher level integration at sentence level during comprehension.
Aside from this, some recent research lines (see below) are aimed to explore the relations between language processing and other cognitive domains such as social cognition and visual attention.

Research directions

Syntax is mainly implemented in terms of word order and of agreement between constituents.
Languages differ in terms of word order restrictions and in term of the amount of morphological expression of a same feature (e.g. number or gender) that require agreement.
By capitalizing on the relative free word order and rich inflectional morphology of Italian, we try to better understand the variables that characterize agreement processing by distinguishing phrase internal agreement (e.g. agreement between a determiner and a noun) and external agreement (e.g. agreement between subject and verb), by studying both lexical and morphological variables (the way a feature is expressed), distance between the agreeing elements, and discourse-level relevance of the features that need to agree.
We mainly employ violation paradigms using eye-tracking and ERPs in order to define different stages of processing that are relevant to deal with agreement inconsistency. Recently we started a project asking subject to covertly recall correct and violated sentences with the aim of disentangle effects due to surprise from the ones that are strictly syntactic in nature.
A more applicative project uses the neural correlates of agreement violation to explore possible differences in syntactic processing in cochlear implanted deaf subjects.

Multiword expressions
Multiword expressions include a large variety of expressions ranging simple collocations (frequent sequences of words), multiword prepositions and phrasal verbs to more complex and longer ones, like idioms and proverbs.
These expressions are extremely interesting for some of the current debates in psychology of language including the nature and organization of lexical memory, figurative language processing and prediction functions during sentence comprehension.
Aside from basic research, we recently used these expressions to study regional variants of Italian by testing how speakers from central and southern regions of Italy adapt to the larger productivity of phrasal verbs that are typical of northern variants.

Our group is interested to widen the perspectives in the study of multilingualism.
Traditionally, the debate has been in fact mainly restricted to the study of how the cognitive system and the brain deal with two different languages in a same individual (early and proficient bilinguals).
The realistic situation is however frequently more complex since a single individual may deal in his life with a larger number of languages, dialects and variants that may be early and late acquired and more or less proficiently known.
Within the study of multilingualism some directions are the study of sensitivity to regional variants of a language, language attrition that emerges as a reduced proficiency in the first language when immersed in a L2 environment, the role of individual differences when learning specific intonation patterns of a second language, when learned in the adulthood.

Phonetics and voice
We are interested in better understanding how different types of information conveyed by the voice are processed when listening to sentences and words.
In particular we are interested in understanding how phonetic variants linked to region of provenance of the speaker is processed as a function of the storage in long term memory of this information.
A further research line aims to better understand how social information conveyed by the voice affects the way we semantically integrate the meaning of the words in a sentence.

Language and visual attention
Some projects are devoted to the study language processing in the perspective of (visually) situated cognition.
We try to better disentangle the relation between language and visual processing by decoupling the two processes, differently from what is traditionally done in the visual world paradigm in which language is presented simultaneously to a visual display.
Within this research line we are specifically interested in understanding if the modality and the way in which a target is presented affects how an attentional template is built and used in a visual search or in a verification task.
Another project is aimed to better understand the role of object labelling in the deployment of attention to objects in preverbal infants.

Internal collaborations

Giulia Calignano, PhD candidate
Federica Mantione, post-doc
Patrizia Cordin, Associate Professor (Department of Humanities)
Remo Job, Full Professor
Francesco Pavani, Full Professor (DiPSCo, CiMeC)
Roberto Zamparelli, Associate Professor (DiPSCo, CiMeC)
Alessandra Zappoli, PhD candidate


AThEME (Advancing the Multilingual European Experience), CP-IP - Large-scale integrating project (ID:613465) funded under FP7-SSH (total EU contribution 5M euro, local funds: 84.717)

External collaborations

Birgit Alber & Stefan Rabanus, Universtità degli Studi di Verona, Italy.
Nicoletta Biondo & Simona Mancini, Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, Spain.
Cristina Cacciari, Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Paolo Canal, Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori, Pavia, Italy.
Brian Dillon, UMass Amherst, MA, USA.
Matteo Mascelloni & Jutta Mueller, Universität Osnabrück, Germany.
Luigi Rizzi, Université de Genève, Università di Siena.
Petra Schumacher, Stefan Baumann & Martine Grice, Universität zu Kohln, Germany.
Karsten Steinhauer & Kristina Kasparian, McGill University, CA.
Simone Sulipzio, Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milano, Italy.

Selected publications (max 10)

  • Canal, P., Pesciarelli, F., Vespignani, F., Molinaro, N., & Cacciari, C. (2017). Basic composition and enriched integration in idiom processing: An eeg study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(6), 928.
  • Kasparian, K., Vespignani, F., & Steinhauer, K. (2017). First language attrition induces changes in online morphosyntactic processing and re-analysis: An erp study of number agreement in complex italian sentences. Cognitive Science, 41(7), 1760–1803.
  • Didino, D., Knops, A., Vespignani, F., & Suchada, K. (2015). Asymmetric activation spreading in the multiplication associative network due to asymmetric overlap between numerosities semantic representations? Cognition, 141, 1–8.
  • Caffarra, S., Siyanova-Chanturia, A., Pesciarelli, F., Vespignani, F., & Cacciari, C. (2015). Is the noun ending a cue to grammatical gender processing? An erp study on sentences in italian. Psychophysiology, 52(8), 1019–1030.
  • Sulpizio, S., Fasoli, F., Maass, A., Paladino, M. P., Vespignani, F., Eyssel, F., & Bentler, D. (2015). The sound of voice: Voice-based categorization of speakers’ sexual orientation within and across languages. Plos One, 10(7), 1–38.
  • Molinaro, N., Vespignani, F., Zamparelli, R., & Job, R. (2011). Why brother and sister are not just siblings: Repair processes in agreement computation. Journal of Memory and Language, 64(3), 211–232.
  • Delogu, F., Vespignani, F., & Sanford, A. J. (2010). Effects of intensionality on sentence and discourse processing: Evidence from eye-movements. Journal of Memory and Language, 62(4), 352–379.
  • Vespignani, F., Canal, P., Molinaro, N., Fonda, S., & Cacciari, C. (2010). Predictive mechanisms in idiom comprehension. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(8), 1682–1700.
  • Molinaro, N., Vespignani, F., & Job, R. (2008). A deeper reanalysis of a superficial feature: An ERP study on agreement violations. Brain Research, 1228, 161–176.
  • Molinaro, N., Kim, A., Vespignani, F., & Job, R. (2008). Anaphoric agreement violation: An erp analysis of its interpretation. Cognition, 106(2), 963–974.