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How language production shapes language form and comprehension

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      Language production processes can provide insight into how language comprehension works and language typology—why languages tend to have certain characteristics more often than others. Drawing on work in memory retrieval, motor planning, and serial order in action planning, the Production-Distribution-Comprehension (PDC) account links work in the fields of language production, typology, and comprehension: (1) faced with substantial computational burdens of planning and producing utterances, language producers implicitly follow three biases in utterance planning that promote word order choices that reduce these burdens, thereby improving production fluency. (2) These choices, repeated over many utterances and individuals, shape the distributions of utterance forms in language. The claim that language form stems in large degree from producers' attempts to mitigate utterance planning difficulty is contrasted with alternative accounts in which form is driven by language use more broadly, language acquisition processes, or producers' attempts to create language forms that are easily understood by comprehenders. (3) Language perceivers implicitly learn the statistical regularities in their linguistic input, and they use this prior experience to guide comprehension of subsequent language. In particular, they learn to predict the sequential structure of linguistic signals, based on the statistics of previously-encountered input. Thus, key aspects of comprehension behavior are tied to lexico-syntactic statistics in the language, which in turn derive from utterance planning biases promoting production of comparatively easy utterance forms over more difficult ones. This approach contrasts with classic theories in which comprehension behaviors are attributed to innate design features of the language comprehension system and associated working memory. The PDC instead links basic features of comprehension to a different source: production processes that shape language form.

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      Most cited references 72

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      The magical number seven plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information.

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        Linguistic complexity: locality of syntactic dependencies.

         Edward Gibson (1998)
        This paper proposes a new theory of the relationship between the sentence processing mechanism and the available computational resources. This theory--the Syntactic Prediction Locality Theory (SPLT)--has two components: an integration cost component and a component for the memory cost associated with keeping track of obligatory syntactic requirements. Memory cost is hypothesized to be quantified in terms of the number of syntactic categories that are necessary to complete the current input string as a grammatical sentence. Furthermore, in accordance with results from the working memory literature both memory cost and integration cost are hypothesized to be heavily influenced by locality (1) the longer a predicted category must be kept in memory before the prediction is satisfied, the greater is the cost for maintaining that prediction; and (2) the greater the distance between an incoming word and the most local head or dependent to which it attaches, the greater the integration cost. The SPLT is shown to explain a wide range of processing complexity phenomena not previously accounted for under a single theory, including (1) the lower complexity of subject-extracted relative clauses compared to object-extracted relative clauses, (2) numerous processing overload effects across languages, including the unacceptability of multiply center-embedded structures, (3) the lower complexity of cross-serial dependencies relative to center-embedded dependencies, (4) heaviness effects, such that sentences are easier to understand when larger phrases are placed later and (5) numerous ambiguity effects, such as those which have been argued to be evidence for the Active Filler Hypothesis.
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          Expectation-based syntactic comprehension.

           Roger Levy (2008)
          This paper investigates the role of resource allocation as a source of processing difficulty in human sentence comprehension. The paper proposes a simple information-theoretic characterization of processing difficulty as the work incurred by resource reallocation during parallel, incremental, probabilistic disambiguation in sentence comprehension, and demonstrates its equivalence to the theory of Hale [Hale, J. (2001). A probabilistic Earley parser as a psycholinguistic model. In Proceedings of NAACL (Vol. 2, pp. 159-166)], in which the difficulty of a word is proportional to its surprisal (its negative log-probability) in the context within which it appears. This proposal subsumes and clarifies findings that high-constraint contexts can facilitate lexical processing, and connects these findings to well-known models of parallel constraint-based comprehension. In addition, the theory leads to a number of specific predictions about the role of expectation in syntactic comprehension, including the reversal of locality-based difficulty patterns in syntactically constrained contexts, and conditions under which increased ambiguity facilitates processing. The paper examines a range of established results bearing on these predictions, and shows that they are largely consistent with the surprisal theory.

            Author and article information

            Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison Madison, WI, USA
            Author notes

            Edited by: Charles Clifton, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA

            Reviewed by: Gary Dell, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA; Fernanda Ferreira, University of South Carolina, USA; Joan Bresnan, Stanford University, USA

            *Correspondence: Maryellen C. MacDonald, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1202 West Johnson St., Madison, WI 53706, USA. e-mail: mcmacdonald@

            This article was submitted to Frontiers in Language Sciences, a specialty of Frontiers in Psychology.

            Front Psychol
            Front Psychol
            Front. Psychol.
            Frontiers in Psychology
            Frontiers Media S.A.
            25 November 2012
            26 April 2013
            : 4
            Copyright © 2013 MacDonald.

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

            Figures: 1, Tables: 2, Equations: 0, References: 134, Pages: 16, Words: 15579
            Hypothesis and Theory Article


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