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Cognitive Procceses Involved in the Use of Language

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Treiman, R., Clifton, C., Jr, Meyer, A. S., & Wurm, L. H. (2003). Language comprehension and production. Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology, Volume 4: Experimental Psychology. New York:
John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pages 527-548. Copyright John Wiley & Sons.
Psycholinguistics: Language comprehension and production
Rebecca Treiman
Wayne State University
Charles Clifton, Jr.
University of Massachusetts
Antje S. Meyer
University of Birmingham
Lee H. Wurm
Wayne State University
Acknowledgments: Preparation of this chapter was supported by NSF Grant SBR-9807736 to
R.T. and NIH Grant HD18708 to the University of Massachusetts.
To appear in A.F. Healy & R.W. Proctor (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of psychology, Vol.
4: Experimental Psychology. New York: Wiley. Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 2
Language comprehension Spoken word recognition Printed word recognition The mental lexicon Comprehension of sentences and discourse Phenomena common to reading and listening comprehension Phenomena specific to the comprehension of spoken language Phenomena specific to the comprehension of written language
Language production Access to single words in spoken language production Generation of sentences in spoken language production Written language production
Psychologists have long been interested in language, but psycholinguistics as a field of study did not emerge until the 1960s. It was motivated by Chomsky’s work in linguistics, and by his claim that the special properties of language require special mechanisms to handle it (e.g.,
Chomsky, 1959). The special feature of language on which Chomsky focused was its productivity. Possessed with a grammar, or syntax, humans can produce and understand novel sentences that carry novel messages. We do this in a way that is exquisitely sensitive to the structure of the language. For example, we interpret The umpire helped the child to third baseTreiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 3 and The umpire helped the child on third base as conveying distinct messages, although the sentences differ in just one small word. We know that He showed her baby the pictures and He showed her the baby pictures describe quite different events, even though the difference in word order is slight. We can even make some sense of Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
(Chomsky, 1971), which is semantically anomalous but syntactically well formed. The same kinds of abilities are found at other levels of language. We combine morphemes (units of meaning) in systematic ways, and so understand Lewis Carroll’s (1871/1977) slithy toves to refer to more than one tove that has the characteristics of slithiness. And we can combine phonemes (units of sound) according to the patterns of our language, accepting slithy but not tlithy as a potential English word.
Early psycholinguists described our comprehension and production of language in terms of the rules that were postulated by linguists (Fodor, Bever, & Garrett, 1974). The connections between psychology and linguistics were particularly close in the area of syntax, with psycholinguists testing the psychological reality of various proposed linguistic rules. As the field of psycholinguistics developed, it became clear that theories of sentence comprehension and production cannot be based in any simple way on linguistic theories; psycholinguistic theories must consider the properties of the human mind as well as the structure of the language.
Psycholinguistics has thus become its own area of inquiry, informed by but not totally dependent on linguistics.
Although Chomsky and the early psycholinguists focused on the creative side of language, language also has its rote side. For example, we store a great deal of information about the properties of words in our mental lexicon, and we retrieve this information when we Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 4 understand or produce language. On some views, different kinds of mechanisms are responsible for the creative and the habitual aspects of language. For example, we may use morpheme-based rules to decompose a complex word like rewritable the first few times we encounter it, but after several exposures we may begin to store and access the word as a unit (Caramazza, Laudanna, &
Romani, 1988; Schreuder & Baayen, 1995). Dual-route views of this kind have been proposed in several areas of psycholinguistics. According to such models, frequency of exposure determines our ability to recall stored instances but not our ability to apply rules. Another idea is that a single set of mechanisms can handle both the creative side and the rote side of language.
Connectionist theories (see Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986) take this view. Such theories claim, for instance, that readers use the same system of links between spelling units and sound units to generate the pronunciations of novel written words like tove and to access the pronunciations of familiar words, be they words that follow typical spelling-to-sound correspondences, like stove, or words that are exceptions to these patterns, like love (e.g., Plaut, McClelland, Seidenberg, &
Patterson, 1996; Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989). In this view, similarity and frequency both play important roles in processing, with novel items being processed based on their similarity to known ones. The patterns are statistical and probabilistic rather than all-or-none.
Early psycholinguists, following Chomsky, tended to see language as an autonomous system, insulated from other cognitive systems. In this modular view (see J.A. Fodor, 1983), the initial stages of word and sentence comprehension are not influenced by higher levels of knowledge. Information about context and about real-world constraints comes into play only after the first steps of linguistic processing have taken place, giving such models a serial quality.
On an interactive view, in contrast, knowledge about linguistic context and about the world Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 5 plays an immediate role in the comprehension of words and sentences. In this view, many types of information are used in parallel, with the different sources of information working cooperatively or competitively to yield an interpretation. Such ideas are often expressed in connectionist terms. Modular and interactive views may also be distinguished in discussions of language production, where one issue is whether there is a syntactic component that operates independently of conceptual and phonological factors.
Another tension in current-day psycholinguistics concerns the proper role of linguistics in the field. Work on syntactic processing, especially in the early days of psycholinguistics, was very much influenced by developments in linguistics. Links between linguistics and psycholinguistics have been less close in other areas, but they do exist. For instance, work on phonological processing has been influenced by linguistic accounts of prosody (the melody, rhythm, and stress pattern of spoken language) and of the internal structure of syllables, and some work on word recognition and language production has been influenced by linguistic analyses of morphology (the study of morphemes and their combination). Although most psycholinguists believe that linguistics provides an essential foundation for their field, some advocates of interactive approaches have moved away from a reliance on linguistic rules and principles and toward a view of language in terms of probabilistic patterns (e.g., Seidenberg,
In this chapter, we describe current views of the comprehension and production of spoken and written language by fluent language users. Although we acknowledge the importance of social factors in language use, our focus is on core processes such as parsing and word retrieval that are not likely to be strongly affected by such factors. We do not have the Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 6 space to discuss the important field of developmental psycholinguistics, which deals with the acquisition of language by children. Nor will we cover neurolinguistics, how language is represented in the brain, or applied psycholinguistics, which encompasses such topics as language disorders and language teaching.
Spoken Word Recognition
The perception of spoken words would seem to be an extremely difficult task. Speech is distributed in time, a fleeting signal that has few reliable cues to the boundaries between segments and words. The paucity of cues leads to what is called the segmentation problem, or the problem of how listeners hear a sequence of discrete units even though the acoustic signal itself is continuous. Other features of speech could cause difficulty for listeners as well. Certain phonemes are omitted in conversational speech, others change their pronunciations depending on the surrounding sounds (e.g., /n/ may be pronounced as [m] in lean bacon), and many words have
“everyday” pronunciations (e.g., going to frequently becomes gonna). Despite these potential problems, we usually seem to perceive speech automatically and with little effort. Whether we do so using procedures that are unique to speech and that form a specialized speech module
(Liberman & Mattingly, 1985; see also Chapter 9), or whether we do so using more general capabilities, it is clear that humans are well adapted for the perception of speech.
Listeners attempt to map the acoustic signal onto a representation in the mental lexicon beginning almost as the signal starts to arrive. The cohort model, first proposed by MarslenWilson and Welsh (1978), illustrates how this may occur. According to this theory, the first few phonemes of a spoken word activate a set or cohort of word candidates that are consistent with Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 7 that input. These candidates compete with one another for activation. As more acoustic input is analyzed, candidates that are no longer consistent with the input drop out of the set. This process continues until only one word candidate matches the input; the best fitting word may be chosen if no single candidate is a clear winner. Supporting this view, listeners sometimes glance first at a picture of a candy when instructed to “pick up the candle” (Allopenna, Magnuson, & Tanenhaus,
1998). This result suggests that a set of words beginning with /k{n/ is briefly activated. Listeners may glance at a picture of a handle, too, suggesting that the cohort of word candidates also includes words that rhyme with the target. Indeed, later versions of the cohort theory (MarslenWilson, 1987; 1990) have relaxed the insistence on perfectly matching input from the very first phoneme of a word. Other models (McClelland & Elman, 1986; Norris, 1994) also advocate continuous mapping between spoken input and lexical representations, with the initial portion of the spoken word exerting a strong but not exclusive influence on the set of candidates.
The cohort model and the model of McClelland and Elman (1986) are examples of interactive models, those in which higher processing levels have a direct, “top-down” influence on lower levels. In particular, lexical knowledge can affect the perception of phonemes. A number of researchers have found evidence for interactivity in the form of lexical effects on the perception of sublexical units. Wurm and Samuel (1997), for example, reported that listeners’ knowledge of words can lead to the inhibition of certain phonemes. Samuel (1997) found additional evidence of interactivity by studying the phenomenon of phonemic restoration. This refers to the fact that listeners continue to “hear” phonemes that have been removed from the speech signal and replaced by noise. Samuel discovered that the restored phonemes produced by lexical activation lead to reliable shifts in how listeners labeled ambiguous phonemes. This Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 8 finding is noteworthy because such shifts are thought to be a very low-level processing phenomenon. Modular models, which do not allow top-down perceptual effects, have had varying success in accounting for some of the findings just described. The race model of Cutler and
Norris (1979; see also Norris, McQueen, & Cutler, 2000) is one example of such a model. The model has two routes that race each other -- a pre-lexical route, which computes phonological information from the acoustic signal, and a lexical route, in which the phonological information associated with a word becomes available when the word itself is accessed. When word-level information appears to affect a lower-level process, it is assumed that the lexical route won the race. Importantly, though, knowledge about words never influences perception at the lower
(phonemic) level. There is currently much discussion about whether all of the experimental findings suggesting top-down effects can be explained in these terms or whether interactivity is necessary (see Norris et al., 2000, and the associated commentary).
Although it is a matter of debate whether higher-level linguistic knowledge affects the initial stages of speech perception, it is clear that our knowledge of language and its patterns facilitates perception in some ways. For example, listeners use phonotactic information such as the fact that initial /tl/ is illegal in English to help identify phonemes and word boundaries (Halle,
Segui, Frauenfelder, & Meunier, 1998). As another example, listeners use their knowledge that
English words are often stressed on the first syllable to help parse the speech signal into words
(Norris, McQueen, & Cutler, 1995). These types of knowledge help us solve the segmentation problem in a language that we know, even though we perceive an unknown language as an undifferentiated string. Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 9
Printed Word Recognition
Speech is as old as our species and is found in all human civilizations; reading and writing are newer and less widespread. These facts lead us to expect that readers would use the visual representations that are provided by print to recover the phonological and linguistic structure of the message. Supporting this view, readers often access phonology even when they are reading silently and even when reliance on phonology would tend to hurt their performance.
In one study, people were asked to quickly decide whether a word belonged to a specified category (Van Orden, 1987). They were more likely to misclassify a homophone like meet as a food than to misclassify a control item like melt as a food. In other studies, readers were asked to quickly decide whether a printed sentence makes sense. Readers with normal hearing were found to have more trouble with sentences such as He doesn’t like to eat meet than with sentences such as He doesn’t like to eat melt. Those who were born deaf, in contrast, did not show a difference between the two sentence types (Treiman & Hirsh-Pasek, 1983).
The English writing system, in addition to representing the sound segments of a word, contains clues to the word’s stress pattern and morphological structure. Consistent with the view that print serves as a map of linguistic structure, readers take advantage of these clues as well.
For example, skilled readers appear to have learned that a word that has more letters than strictly necessary in its second syllable (e.g., -ette rather than -et) is likely to be an exception to the generalization that English words are typically stressed on the first syllable. In a lexical decision task, where participants must quickly decide whether a letter string is a real word, they perform better with words such as cassette, whose stressed second syllable is spelled with -ette, than with words such as palette, which has final -ette but first-syllable stress (Kelly, Morris, & Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 10
Verrekia, 1998). Skilled readers also use the clues to morphological structure that are embedded in English orthography. For example, they know that the prefix re- can stand before free morphemes such as print and do, yielding the two-morpheme words reprint and redo.
Encountering vive in a lexical decision task, participants may wrongly judge it to be a word because of their familiarity with revive (Taft & Forster, 1975).
Although there is good evidence that phonology and other aspects of linguistic structure are retrieved in reading (see Frost, 1998 for a review), there are a number of questions about how linguistic structure is derived from print. One idea, which is embodied in dual-route theories such as that of Coltheart, Rastle, Perry, Langdon, and Ziegler (2001), is that two different processes are available for converting orthographic representations to phonological representations. A lexical route is used to look up the phonological forms of known words in the mental lexicon; this procedure yields correct pronunciations for exception words such as love. A nonlexical route accounts for the productivity of reading: It generates pronunciations for novel letter strings (e.g., tove) as well as for regular words (e.g., stove) on the basis of smaller units.
This latter route gives incorrect pronunciations for exception words, so that these words may be pronounced slowly or erroneously (e.g., love said as /lov/) in speeded word naming tasks (e.g.,
Glushko, 1979). In contrast, connectionist theories claim that a single set of connections from orthography to phonology can account for performance on both regular words and exception words (e.g., Plaut et al., 1996; Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989).
Another question about orthography-to-phonology translation concerns its grain size.
English, which has been the subject of much of the research on word recognition, has a rather irregular writing system. For example, ea corresponds to /i/ in bead but /E/ in dead; c is /k/ in Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 11 cat but /s/ in city. Such irregularities are particularly common for vowels. Quantitative analyses have shown, however, that consideration of the consonant that follows a vowel can often help to specify the vowel’s pronunciation (Kessler & Treiman, 2001; Treiman, Mullennix, BijeljacBabic, & Richmond-Welty, 1995). The /E/ pronunciation of ea, for example, is more likely before d than before m. Such considerations have led to the proposal that readers of English often use letter groups that correspond to the syllable rime (the vowel nucleus plus an optional consonantal coda) in spelling-to-sound translation (see Bowey, 1990; Treiman et al., 1995, for supporting evidence). In more regular alphabets, such as Dutch, spelling-to-sound translation can be successfully performed at a small grain size and rime-based processing may not be needed (Martensen, Maris, & Dijkstra, 2000).
Researchers have also asked whether a phonological form, once activated, feeds activation back to the orthographic level. If so, a word such as heap may be harder to process than otherwise expected because its phonological form, /hip/, would be consistent with the spelling heep as well as with the actual heap. Some studies have found evidence for feedback of this kind (e.g., Stone, Vanhoy, & Van Orden, 1997), but others have not (e.g., Peereman,
Content, & Bonin, 1998).
Because spoken words are spread out in time, as discussed earlier, spoken word recognition is generally considered a sequential process. With many printed words, though, the eye takes in all of the letters during a single fixation (Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989). The connectionist models of reading cited earlier maintain that all phonemes of a word are activated in parallel. Current dual-route theories, in contrast, claim that the assembly process operates in a serial fashion such that the phonological forms of the leftmost elements are delivered before Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 12 those for the succeeding elements (Coltheart et al., 2001). Still another view (Berent & Perfetti,
1995) is that consonants, whatever their position, are translated into phonological form before vowels. These issues are the subject of current research and debate (see Lee, Rayner, &
Pollatsek, 2001; Lukatela & Turvey, 2000; Rastle & Coltheart, 1999; Zorzi, 2000).
Progress in determining how linguistic representations are derived from print will be made as researchers move beyond the short, monosyllabic words that have been the focus of much current research and modeling. In addition, experimental techniques that involve the brief presentation of stimuli and the tracking of eye movements are contributing useful information.
These methods supplement the naming tasks and lexical decision tasks that are used in much of the research on single word reading (see Chapter 20 for further discussion of eye movements and reading). Although many questions remain to be answered, it is clear that the visual representations provided by print rapidly make contact with the representations stored in the mental lexicon. Once this contact has been made, it matters little whether the initial input was by eye or by ear. The principles and processing procedures are much the same.
The mental lexicon
So far, in discussing how listeners and readers access information in the mental lexicon, we have not said much about the nature of the information that they access. It is to this topic that we now turn. One question, which relates to the trade-off between computation and storage in language processing, is whether the mental lexicon is organized by morphemes or by words.
Under a word-based view, the lexicon contains representations of all words that the language user knows, whether they are single-morpheme words such as cat or polymorphemic words such as beautifully. Supporting this view, Tyler, Marslen-Wilson, Rentoul, and Hanney (1988) found Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 13 that spoken word recognition performance was related to when the word began to diverge from other words in the mental lexicon, as predicted by the cohort model, but was not related to morphemic predictors of where recognition should take place. Under a morpheme-based view, in contrast, the lexicon is organized in terms of morphemes such as beauty, ful, and ly. In this view, complex words are processed and represented in terms of such units.
The study by Taft and Forster (1975) brought morphological issues to the attention of many psychologists and pointed to some form of morpheme-based storage. As mentioned earlier, these researchers found that nonwords such as vive (which is the stem of revive) were difficult to reject in a lexical decision task. Participants also had trouble with items such as dejuvenate which, although not a real word, consists of genuine prefix together with a genuine root. Taft and Forster interpreted their results to suggest that access to the mental lexical is based on root morphemes and that obligatory decomposition must precede word recognition for polymorphemic words.
More recent studies suggest that there are in fact two routes to recognition for polymorphemic words, one based on morphological analysis and the other based on whole-word storage. In one instantiation of this dual-route view, morphologically complex words are simultaneously analyzed as whole words and in terms of morphemes. In the model of Wurm
(1997, Wurm & Ross, 2001), for instance, the system maintains a representation of which morphemes can combine, and in what ways. A potential word root is checked against a list of free roots that have combined in the past with the prefix in question. In another instantiation of the dual-route view, some morphologically complex words are decomposed and others are not.
For example, Marslen-Wilson, Tyler, Waksler, and Older (1994) argued that semantically Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 14 opaque words such as organize and casualty are treated by listeners and readers as monomorphemic and are not decomposed no matter how many morphemes they technically contain. Commonly encountered words may also be treated as wholes rather than in terms of morphemes (Caramazza et al., 1988; Schreuder & Baayen, 1995). Although morphological decomposition may not always take place, the evidence we have reviewed suggests that the lexicon is organized, in part, in terms of morphemes. This organization helps explain our ability to make some sense of slithy and toves.
Ambiguous words, or those with more than one meaning, might be expected to cause difficulties in lexical processing. Researchers have been interested in ambiguity because studies of this issue may provide insight into whether processing at the lexical level is influenced by information at higher levels or whether it is modular. In the former case, comprehenders would be expected to access only the contextually appropriate meaning of a word. In the latter case, all meanings should be retrieved and context should have its effects only after the initial processing has taken place. The original version of the cohort model (Marslen-Wilson & Welsh, 1978) adopts an interactive view when it states that context acts directly on cohort membership.
However, later versions of cohort theory (Marslen-Wilson, 1987; 1990; Moss & MarslenWilson, 1993) hold that context has its effects at a later, integrative stage.
Initially, it appears, both meanings of an ambiguous morpheme are looked up in many cases. This may even occur when the preceding context would seem to favor one meaning over the other. In one representative study (Gernsbacher & Faust, 1991), participants read sentences such as Jack tried the punch but he didn’t think it tasted very good. After the word punch had been presented, an upper-case letter string was presented and participants were asked to decide Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics, 15 whether or not it was a real word. Of interest were lexical decision targets such as HIT, which are related to an unintended meaning of the ambiguous word, and DRINK, which are related to…...

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