To understand speech, listeners have to combine the words they hear into phrases and sentences. Recent magnetoencephalography (MEG) and electrocorticography (ECoG) studies show that cortical activity is concurrently entrained/synchronized to the rhythms of multiple levels of linguistic units including words, phrases, and sentences. Here we investigate whether this phenomenon can be observed using electroencephalography (EEG), a technique that is more widely available than MEG and ECoG. We show that the EEG responses concurrently track the rhythms of hierarchical linguistic units such as syllables/words, phrases, and sentences. The strength of the sentential-rate response correlates with how well each subject can detect random words embedded in a sequence of sentences. In contrast, only a syllabic-rate response is observed for an unintelligible control stimulus. In sum, EEG provides a useful tool to characterize neural encoding of hierarchical linguistic units, potentially even in individual participants.
Keywords: EEG; entrainment; hierarchical structures; phrase; speech.