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Japanese Psycholinguistics

Summary and Keywords

The Japanese psycholinguistics research field is moving rapidly in many different directions as it includes various sub-linguistics fields (e.g., phonetics/phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse studies). Naturally, diverse studies have reported intriguing findings that shed light on our language mechanism. This article presents a brief overview of some of the notable early 21st century studies mainly from the language acquisition and processing perspectives. The topics are divided into various sections: the sound system, the script forms, reading and writing, morpho-syntactic studies, word and sentential meanings, and pragmatics and discourse studies sections. Studies on special populations are also mentioned.

Studies on the Japanese sound system have advanced our understanding of L1 and L2 (first and second language) acquisition and processing. For instance, more evidence is provided that infants form adult-like phonological grammar by 14 months in L1, and disassociation of prosody is reported from one’s comprehension in L2. Various cognitive factors as well as L1 influence the L2 acquisition process. As the Japanese language users employ three script forms (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) in a single sentence, orthographic processing research reveal multiple pathways to process information and the influence of memory. Adult script decoding and lexical processing has been well studied and research data from special populations further helps us to understand our vision-to-language mapping mechanism. Morpho-syntactic and semantic studies include a long debate on the nativist (generative) and statistical learning approaches in L1 acquisition. In particular, inflectional morphology and quantificational scope interaction in L1 acquisition bring pros and cons of both approaches as a single approach. Investigating processing mechanisms means studying cognitive/perceptual devices. Relative clause processing has been well-discussed in Japanese because Japanese has a different word order (SOV) from English (SVO), allows unpronounced pronouns and pre-verbal word permutations, and has no relative clause marking at the verbal ending (i.e., morphologically the same as the matrix ending). Behavioral and neurolinguistic data increasingly support incremental processing like SVO languages and an expectancy-driven processor in our L1 brain. L2 processing, however, requires more study to uncover its mechanism, as the literature is scarce in both L2 English by Japanese speakers and L2 Japanese by non-Japanese speakers. Pragmatic and discourse processing is also an area that needs to be explored further. Despite the typological difference between English and Japanese, the studies cited here indicate that our acquisition and processing devices seem to adjust locally while maintaining the universal mechanism.

Keywords: behavioral and neurological data, generative approach, L1 transfer, L1 and L2 language acquisition, language processing, prosody, statistical learning, usage-based approach

1. Japanese Psycholinguistics Field

Japanese is one of the well-studied non-Indo-European languages in the field of psycholinguistics and studies on various topics are available. Although the history of Japanese psycholinguistic research is relatively short compared with English and other European languages, it has advanced significantly in the last half century due to the progress in the study of cognition, brain mechanisms, and technological developments in experimental techniques. Psycholinguistics includes various sub-linguistics fields and is thus inherently an interdisciplinary field. The theoretical approaches found in psycholinguistic studies also vary quite a lot, and the Japanese psycholinguistics field is not free from general theoretical influences. In addition to traditional behavioral data, neurolinguistic data uncovers mechanisms for language comprehension, production, and acquisition processes. As technology advances and new psycholinguistic methodologies are developed, new findings emerge. Given these developments, the Japanese psycholinguistics research field has moved fast in many different directions. Because this overview article cannot cover all aspects of Japanese psycholinguistic research sub-fields (e.g., phonetics/phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse studies), it divides the sub-fields broadly, and within them, early 21st century scholarship on specific topics will be discussed, mainly from language acquisition and processing perspectives.

The organization of this article is as follows: Section 2 discusses psycholinguistic studies on the Japanese sound system, referring to both L1 and L2 (first and second language) acquisition and prosodic processing. Section 3 deals with script forms such as kana and kanji (Chinese characters); reading and writing, discussing both normal and dyslexic populations, are referred. Then morpho-syntactic studies are discussed in Section 4, and studies on word and sentence meanings in Section 5. L1 studies on these topics include a discussion of both statistical learning and the generative (nativist) view of acquisition. Finally, pragmatics and discourse studies are mentioned in Section 6. These divisions are conventional and many studies introduced here deal with issues of more than one sub-field. Readers who are specifically interested in L2 acquisition are also referred to Minami’s Second Language Acquisition of Japanese, in this Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics series.

2. Japanese Sound System

Studies of Japanese phonetics and phonology in both adults’ and children’s perception and production have rich analyses on segmental issues traditionally (e.g., Vance’s Sequential Voicing in this Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics series) and recently, more on suprasegmental or prosodic issues (e.g., Kubozno, Accent in Japanese phonology). However, L2 sub-field still lacks a sufficient number of both behavioral and neurolinguistic studies, in particular, on prosody.

2.1. Geminates and Devoicing

Studies on Japanese segmental and suprasegmental issues often include discussions of special sounds, such as geminates and devoicing. Recently, the nature of these sounds has been examined with greater frequency. According to Kawahara (2015), sokuon/geminate obstruents are two to three times longer than a single obstruent (consonant). There appear to be some differences in the production ratio by adults, depending on the manner of articulation (and voicing difference), for example, [p, s] 1.6 times and [d] 3 times longer than the respective single consonant. On the perception of these sounds, Kingston, Kawahara, Chambless, Mash, and Blrenner-Alsop (2009) report that native speakers tend to perceive geminate consonants as geminates more frequently as closure duration increases. Hirata (1990) and Hirata and Amano (2012) discuss the effects of global cues (e.g., sentential level), and to what extent people reply on the local cues (immediately preceding or following sound) when the speech rate is normalized. (On these sounds in L2, readers are referred to Hirata, 2015.)

On devoicing, Fujimoto (2015) states that native speakers tend to shorten vowel length in production; there are dialectal differences (e.g., Tokyo vs. Osaka), as well as social phenomena, such as fast spontaneous speech. On perception, Funatsu, Imaizumi, Fujimoto, and Hayashi (2011) report that many adult Japanese natives can discriminate words with voiced and devoiced vowels, and that dialectal perceptual judgments are affected by the voicing of vowels, not consonantal germination, such as /sokokara/ becoming /sokkara/, which is deletion (Fujimoto & Kagomiya, 2005).

2.2. Phonological Grammar

The Japanese language employs morae and mora-timing rhythm (Otake, 2015). Each mora is often perceived as the same length by Japanese native speakers, though it is not always so in reality. This kind of perception is due to the phonological system of the language, to which infants are attuned shortly after birth. Mazuka (2015) summarizes recent L1 acquisition studies on (a) duration-based phonemic contrasts, such as the distinctions between long and short vowels and between singleton and geminate obstruent contrasts; (b) the acquisition of lexical pitch-accent; and (c) Japanese infants’ perception of the phonologically induced illusionary vowel /u/.

Four-month old Japanese infants are able to discriminate the vowel contrast between /a/ versus /i/ (e.g., /mana/ vs. /mina/), but they are unable to discriminate the long-short vowel contrast (e.g., /mana/ vs. /ma:na/) (Sato, Sogabe, & Mazuka, 2010). They can do so by 9.5 months of age. Furthermore, Japanese infants at 6 months of age are capable of discriminating durational differences with a ratio of 1:2, but not those with a ratio of 2:3 (Sato, Kato, & Mazuka, 2012). By 12 months, they are capable of discriminating 2:3 ratios as well. Mazuka (2015) claims that the difficulty in discriminating these duration-based phonemic contrasts may be related to the nature of input.

Japanese infants can discriminate lexical-pitch-accent from an early age, though they can’t do the duration-based phonemic contrasts. However, Sato, Sogabe, and Mazuka (2010) found that 4- and 10-month-old infants showed different patterns in their left and right-hemispheres when brain activation to the lexical-pitch-accent stimuli was examined in a Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) study. By using near infrared lasers non-invasively, the NIRS system measures changes in the concentration of hemoglobin in brain tissues. Infants start processing the phonological segments of their native language in the same way as non-native or non-linguistic stimuli, and they begin to process them in their own language as linguistically relevant by 10 months of age. This developmental change shows how the two brain hemispheres process the contrasts, the functional lateralization of speech processing. Infants begin processing phonemic contrasts in their native language as linguistically relevant by 10 months.

As a mora-timing rhythm language, Japanese consonants are often followed by a vowel. Since Japanese adults perceive non-word /abna/ as /abuna/, inserting the illusory (epenthetic) vowel /u/ to break up the illegal consonant cluster (Vance, 1987), infants must learn this aspect of the phonological grammar of the language; they start hearing the phonologically induced illusions, as Japanese adults do. Mazuka, Cao, Dupoux, and Christophe (2011) found that Japanese and French infants did not differ significantly from each other at 8 months, but their behaviors differed significantly at 14 months. At 14 months, Japanese infants became like adults, hearing epenthetic vowels in the non-word /abna/.

Since Japanese segmental and suprasegmental characteristics differ from those of well-studied European languages such as English, these findings make a significant contribution to theories of a child’s perceptual development and phonological development in grammar formation. As Mazuka (2015) claims, an infant’s perceptual system is attuned to the phonological system around the first year of life. Readers who are interested in the hearing-impaired population, are referred to Otomo (2016), and specifically, Hara (2016) for information on the Japanese Sign Language population.

2.3. Prosody in L1 Processing

It is important to find out how prosodic information is used in processing. For instance, the role of prosody in distinguishing the two alternative structures, e.g., midori no inko no mafuraa ‘a scarf with a green parrot’ vs. ‘a green scarf with a parrot’ was examined in Hirose (2015). Prosody helps differentiate the ambiguous structure, but the role of prosody in production and comprehension of NPs with a branching ambiguity is less clear. The relationship between syntactic structure, prosodic structure, and prosodic realization depends on phonological and discourse factors (e.g., lexical accent, length, and referential contexts).

It has been suggested that implicit prosody plays a role in silent reading (e.g., Fodor, 2002). Sato, Kobayashi, and Miyamoto (2007) investigated implicit prosody among normal hearing and deaf readers and revealed that deaf readers were not sensitive to Hirose’s (2003) prosodic length manipulations. The manipulations are likely related to prosodic contours rather than to some other type of length measurement. One cannot deny the possibility that such manipulations also increase the number of characters in critical words. Therefore, the results (i.e., the longer phrase places a prosodic break) may not reflect the influence of prosodic factors but rather how perceptual mechanisms and working memory handle written words with larger numbers of characters. However, Sato, Kobayashi, and Miyamoto found that implicit prosody played a role in L1 reading.

2.4 Prosody in L2 Studies

Prosody also received more attention in L2 studies. For instance, Japanese college students do not produce downstepping sentential prosody nor do they focus appropriately in a sentential utterance in answering a question in L2 English (Fujimori, Yoshimura, & Yamane, 2016). Prosodic acquisition takes time. Similarly, even advanced learners of Japanese are often incapable of producing the correct prosody. Goss and Nakayama (2011) examined Japanese prosody in L2 oral readings because the absence of a natural rhythm when reading aloud is frequently observed among L2 learners. The relationship between prosodic production of branching modifiers and comprehension were investigated among American learners of Japanese. The experimental results indicate that learners were often incapable of producing the correct prosody, despite their generally high comprehension ability, suggesting disassociation of the prosody form.

The influence of both learner-internal cognitive resources (e.g., working memory, pitch sensitivity) and experience-based factors on the perception of Japanese lexical accent is reported in Goss (2015). His experimental results show that beginners are reliant on memory and basic acoustic sensitivity to support their listening performance, while advanced Japanese speakers increasingly rely on their long-term knowledge of L2 word form in perceiving lexical accent. Readers are referred to Hirata (2015) for more on L2 phonetics and phonology studies.

3. Script Forms, Reading, and Writing

Mature Japanese readers decode three different Japanese scripts, hiragana (cursive kana), katakana (square kana), and kanji (Chinese characters). These three different characters are usually mixed within a single sentence, although in principle, a sentence can be written in only kana (or kanji). In present-day Japanese, hiragana is primarily used to indicate high-frequency morphemes such as case markers, postpositions, and inflectional endings; while katakana is used for loan words except those of Chinese origin; foreigners’ conversations in comics; emphasis; onomatopoetic words; technical and scientific terms including plants, animals, and minerals; and often for Japanese company names that used to be written in kanji, such as Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. Since these script forms (46 basic kana: 71 with the use of diacritics, used to indicate voicing, for example) are moraic, their script-sound correspondence is highly regular. Kanji, on the other hand, do not have predictable, regular script-sound correspondences like kana. They are used primarily for nouns and the roots of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.

3.1. L1 Orthographic Acquisition and Processing

Orthographic acquisition and processing received attention in Japanese because of the orthographic difference from the alphabetic script forms. Because of the use of multiple script forms, questions such as “Do different orthographies constitute different processing routes?” were raised. Kana has a regular script-sound correspondence, and thus, many scholars have proposed that there is phonological mediation (i.e., indirect access). However, kanji can take the direct route (i.e., word meanings are directly retrieved from the visual representation of the words without phonological mediation) because they do not have obvious regular script-sound correspondences. Thus, a dual route model is generally assumed by the researchers who investigate orthographic processing. For a summary of orthographic and lexical processing, readers are referred to Nakayama (1999), Negishi (2006), Saito (2006), and Wydell (2006).

How Japanese adults process these characters is related to how they have learned them. Over 80% of parents in urban areas begin to read books to their infants before their first birthday (Haryu, 2016), and children have ample exposure to different characters in the environment. They usually learn kana first, then convert them into kanji once they enter elementary school. Because of this process, phonological mediation may be enhanced. However, given the exposure to common kanji written words over the years, their familiarity increases, and the direct route may become increasingly efficient. The importance of exposure and frequency is also seen by how kanji are acquired among language minority students in Japan. Butler (2011) reports that they have good oral communication skills but have difficulty reading, and only the frequency of reading in Japanese outside of school significantly influences their kanji reading. On the other hand, their kanji writing is significantly influenced by the amount of kanji writing practice and the frequency of reading outside of school, in addition to the frequency of reading in Japanese. Both acquisition and processing efficiency are obviously enhanced by frequency (i.e., repetition).

How Japanese children’s cognitive capacities relate to reading performance is reported by Koyama, Hansen, and Stein (2008). Kana reading performance was significantly predicted by auditory frequency modulation sensitivity and visual motion sensitivity, as well as phonological awareness, but not by visual memory. However, kanji reading performance was strongly predicted by visual long-term memory, but not by low-level sensory processing or phonological awareness, suggesting the importance of visual memory when learning kanji. These findings also shed light on the characteristics of script forms and how they are acquired.

3.2. Dyslexia and Aphasia

Data from special populations also open our eyes to how we process and read scripts. For instance, the above-mentioned dual lexical accesses (i.e., phonological mediation and direct route) were reported in a classic study of aphasia, Sasanuma (1975). Aphasia is an inability to use language, or a disorder in which an individual struggles to express and understand language, both verbal and written. Dyslexia is a learning disorder, and comes in a number of varieties, such as visual disorder for written language, auditory disorder for spoken, though the definition of dyslexia varies, as Yamada (2006) points out. While both populations are categorized as such, their disorder symptoms and degrees vary greatly across individuals. Thus, individual analyses are important. For instance, Ogawa et al. (2014) identify individual differences among 12 Japanese dyslexic children with suspected developmental disorders. Examining their analysis of phonological structure, letter-to-sound conversion, visual information processing, and eye–hand coordination, they found that the dyslexic children’s difficulties were not caused by a single disability, but by a combination of factors. This finding shows us the difficulty of pinpointing a particular domain for a cause of impediment in this population.

Japanese acquired dyslexia patterns do not seem to be dependent on script-type, nor are they totally independent of script type, according to Sato (2007). Japanese aphasic patients (phonologically impaired, similar to English deep dyslexia; semantically impaired, with a script-independent surface dyslexia; severely semantically impaired, with a surface dyslexia pattern in kanji; and phonologically impaired, with a visuo-spatial deficit) were examined to evaluate the Dual Route Cascade (DRC) model, which is a computational model of visual word recognition and reading aloud (Coltheart, Pastle, Perry, Langdon, & Ziegler, 2001), and the Japanese version of the triangle model (Fushimi, Ijuin, & Tatsumi, 2000), where both kanji and kana words are computed by direct translation from orthography to phonology (O→P computation), with supplementary support from semantics when the O→P computation is inefficient. A direct application of the triangle model (Plaut, McClelland, Seidenberg, & Patterson, 1996) encodes kanji and kana with different weighted connections in bi-directional interactions between orthography, phonology, and semantics. Since the nature of the Japanese scripts produces a differential processing efficiency in the two reading procedures, the triangle model of Fushimi et al. seems to explain her aphasic data more than the DRC model, which means that reading is parasitic on the cognitive systems for spoken language processing and visual processing.

3.3. L2 Acquisition

Being able to decode and produce new scripts takes time, especially, when one is acquiring a new language that employs different script forms from those in one’s native language. The majority of Japanese children learn the English alphabet as the English language is introduced in primary education. This happens while they are still learning many kanji. Therefore, orthographic effects of L1 Japanese on English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) reading acquisition is expected. Akamatsu (2005) presents an overview of this kind of research. They may experience L1 effects such as the type of information dominantly used in word recognition, meta-phonological ability, and efficiency in processing the constituent letters in an English word.

When L1 script forms are shared with those in L2, what kind of issues are involved in reading? Issues raised by Chinese speaking learners of Japanese are discussed in Tamaoka (2015). Because of their knowledge of kanji, L1 Chinese readers pose different issues from those of English speaking L2 Japanese users in their L2 reading. For instance, a L1 script advantage for learners of Japanese with different script backgrounds were observed in Tamaoka (2000). The familiarity of the script type exhibited strong effects on phonological processing, facilitating the processing of kanji compounds for the Chinese group and romaji for the English group. Note that non-identical kanji shapes (i.e., simplified characters) did not bring any differences in processing (Kayamoto, 1996). In addition, the script similarity between L1 Japanese and L2 Chinese/Korean created differences in lexical processing (Koda, 2006; Yamato & Tamaoka, 2013). That is, Chinese learners of Japanese were better at processing kanji compound words whereas Koreans were better at alphabetic loanwords, even when embedded in a text. This is because the similarity of kanji helped Chinese speakers, and the similarity of phonetic symbols between Japanese kana and Korean Hangul scripts may have helped native Korean speakers process katakana loanwords quicker than native Chinese speakers could.

4. Morpho-syntactic Studies

This sub-field has a rich Japanese psycholinguistic literature, both theoretical and experimental. Notably, L1 acquisition brings an important debate between the nativists (i.e., the generative linguists) and those who appeal to usage-based acquisition or statistical learning.

4.1. Inflectional Morphemes in L1 Acquisition and Specific Language Impairment

The acquisition of inflectional morphemes is a topic that has been discussed more than 40 years in studies on L1 and L2 Japanese (see also Section 5.4, Tense and Aspect Interpretations in L2. For instance, Murasugi (2015) reviews Japanese children’s use of tense and aspect morphemes. Languages such as English clearly observe a developmental stage where children do not seem to produce utterances with tense, that is, no inflectional morphemes. Japanese should also observe this stage if one considers the developmental stage to be universal (or maturational). However, Japanese children’s verb forms always have tense morphemes (-(r)u or –ta), and it seems that they are free from this developmental stage. At least that was what was considered until the early 21st century. Murasugi claims that Japanese is not different from other languages in that Japanese children also have a developmental stage without tense, i.e., a Root Infinitive analogue (or optional infinitive) stage, but the stage occurs earlier than in European languages. She argues that the early use of –ta is evidence for this stage. Note that this stage does not occur during the course of L2 acquisition (by mature adults). However, there are variable inflectional and agreement morphology observed in Japanese speaking learners’ English, though their variability decreases as their proficiency goes up (Yoshimura & Nakayama, 2010).

Inflectional variability is also seen in specific language impairment (SLI). Despite fewer published works in Japanese, research on SLI offers a window to understanding how our brains develop and how we become efficient language users. Fukuda, Fukuda, and Ito (2015) report the grammatical deficits Japanese SLI children exhibit. They evaluate the validity of six linguistic accounts of SLI with Japanese SLI data: the feature-blindness account, the agreement deficit account, the structure-building deficit account, the extended optional infinitives account, the implicit rule deficit account, and the representational deficit for dependent relations account. Their Japanese SLI data support the implicit rule deficit account, which assumes that SLI children cannot construct implicit rules that govern morphological agreement, but learn some of these inflected words by memorizing them as unanalyzed single lexical items. Their SLI children could not reliably manipulate tense marking on verbs. The study shows the contribution Japanese SLI can make toward a cross-linguistic theory of SLI.

4.2. Statistical Learning Model

Statistical learning, as opposed to the nativist’s approach, has been given more attention in the early 21st century. For instance, Chang (2015) presents a statistical learning model based on a connectionist approach. Connectionism, an approach to the study of human cognition, uses mathematical models that can be applied to language external factors such as pragmatics. Chang’s simulated computer program was created based on the model of learned language-specific syntactic representations, and it used layered representations in incremental sentence production. This shows how frequency shapes the preference of a particular word order and what is anticipated in Japanese. It is a more parsimonious account of psycholinguistic phenomena, where “universal” processing biases arise from language-specific knowledge. The statistical learning model is relevant to Tomasello’s (2003) usage-based language acquisition model, which emphasizes that language structure emerges from language use. This is often contrasted with nativist views such as the principles and parameters framework and the minimalist framework of generative grammar (e.g., Chomsky, 1981, 1993, 1995). See Section 5.2, “Quantificational Scope Interaction in L1.”

4.3. Interface Approach in L2 Acquisition

Some adult L2 learners’ errors are similar to those children make during their L1 acquisition. Variation in the linguistic performance of the L2 learner, which is observed even at advanced stages of L2 acquisition, can be attributable to incomplete construction and representation of the L2 grammar. Nakayama and Yoshimura (2015) present an interface approach to account for the complexity of errors L2 learners make, including fossilized errors in L2 English and Japanese. Assuming different grammatical modules, such as phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic components, they claim that more errors persist if they fall into more than one grammatical component. In addition, performance factors (e.g., computational limitation) can bring more complications during the course of language acquisition. This interface approach can account for the comprehension and production processes more readily than the principles and parameters approach, which assumes that parametric values are innate. A particular value for a parameter is selected based on the input during the course of L1 acquisition, and when L2 input differs from what the L1 value generates, a different value for that parameter is selected.

4.4. Syntactic Processing

Studies of Japanese language processing have contributed greatly to the field, from a cross-linguistic perspective. For instance, Japanese is a head-final language, in which the important verb information comes at the end of a verb phrase (and a sentence), unlike a head-initial language like English. Therefore, parsing models created based on English data alone cannot accommodate languages like Japanese (Miyamoto, 2008; Nakayama, 1999) and cannot become universal sentence processing models. Constructing a universal processing model has, so far, been the predominant approach in the field, but there is no a priori reason that one cannot propose a language specific processing model. In the early 21st century, there has been more research emphasis on our brain functions, such as discovering which part of the brain is activated, when. However, we are still in the “fact finding” stage and far from answering the “Why?” questions. For instance, Sakamoto (2015) examines the physiological evidence for dissociating syntactic and semantic processes by referring to event-related brain potentials (ERP) data. ERP is an electro-physiological brain-imaging technique that measures neural activations. Thus, the data show which part of the brain has activated with a certain degree of intensity at a certain time. Sakamoto evaluates two parsing models (syntax-first and interactive) that attempt to account for various types of linguistic processes, and concludes that the Japanese processing mechanism works in an “expectancy-driven” way. Japanese speakers do not wait to process a sentence until the end of the sentence, at the verb; rather, they process it incrementally and anticipate forthcoming words.

One of the well-studied grammatical structures in sentence processing is the relative clause structure. Kahraman and Sakai (2015) discuss various factors involved in processing Japanese relative clause sentences. They evaluate the theories on filler-gap dependency formation in Japanese, such as dependency locality theory (Gibson, 2000) and structural distance hypothesis (O’Grady, 1997), and they look further at frequency. The limitations and the possibilities of future directions in relative clause processing studies are also suggested (see also Miyamoto, 2016, for the subject relative preference in Japanese). Sawasaki and Kashiwagi-Wood (2015) and Roland (2016) discuss L2 relative clause processing, but more research is needed even to establish generalizations among L2 learners.

The field of L2 Japanese processing is indeed still in its infancy. The issues studied are similar to those in L1 lexical and sentence processing. The number of factors involved in processing increases greatly in L2 compared to L1 because there exist (at least) two grammars, and L2 grammar is not necessarily native-like. Furthermore, given limited real time experience, the processor is not always working as fast as it can optimally. These are additional considerations that make L2 processing studies difficult to carry out. For instance, Kashiwagi and Nakayama (2008) report that English-speaking learners of Japanese process 3 morae (X9XX, where X is one kana), 6 morae, and 6 morae NP-genitive no-NP phrases in sentences significantly differently from native speakers, indicating different utilization of resources, such as working memory. See Sawasaki (2006) and Sawasaki and Kashiwagi-Wood (2015) for more on L2 processing and Tamaoka (2015) on syntactic processing by Chinese speaking learners of Japanese.

There are few studies on Japanese sentence production models. Iwasaki (2015) discusses both L1 and L2 Japanese sentence production in specific theoretical models. By referring to grammatical encoding, it points out differences between sentence production processes in European languages and Japanese. It also discusses the implications that L2 (bilingual) sentence production models would bring to L2 Japanese, which have been created primarily based on L1 and L2 European languages.

5. Word and Sentential Meanings

There are a large number of L1 and L2 acquisition studies on vocabulary learning and sentential comprehension. Issues taken up by these studies are diverse, and a few theoretically important issues are discussed below.

5.1. Lexical Acquisition

One of the issues discussed extensively in the early 21st century is the count/mass issue. Imai and Kanero (2015) discuss this most fundamental conceptual (object vs. substance) distinction. Japanese is one of the languages that do not morphologically mark the singular and plural distinction on individuated object nouns all the time, and it uses a numeral classifier system. Therefore, how these concepts manifest in Japanese children’s grammar is an important question. Developmental and neurophysiological studies indicate that the numeral classifier system does not serve as a primary basis for the distinction between object and substance in Japanese. However, there seems to be some influence for having the classifier system on non-linguistic concepts, as they rely on different cues to judge “sameness” of entities. Their ERP study demonstrates that the Japanese classifier system is not a set of strictly grammatical systems, but a complex system that integrates both semantic and syntactic information.

Another interesting study with neurolinguistic data is discussed on children’s L2 semantic comprehension. Hagiwara (2015) explores questions such as how language acquisition and brain development co-occur in early childhood and when cortical plasticity for the language modules deteriorates. New imaging techniques allow us to answer a long debated question, whether complete mastery of a language is impossible after puberty (i.e., after the critical period). By examining the status of L2 English in the Japanese brain both in adulthood and childhood, Hagiwara demonstrates that a certain aspect of syntax, core computation in narrow syntax and morphology-syntax interface, is free from the notion of the critical period, and that lexical learning (e.g., sounds and meanings of words) in childhood is biologically constrained in the human brain (e.g., left-hemispheric segmental and right-hemispheric suprasegmental processing). These findings make a significant contribution to a general theory of L2 acquisition. Readers are also referred to Butler (2016) for a review of studies on age factors; and for special populations, see Oi and Tanaka (2016) on literal and nonliteral meanings by the autism population.

5.2. Quantificational Scope Interaction in L1

Quantifiers take scope over sentences. While explaining L1 scope interpretations, Thornton and Crain (2016) claim that the nativist/universalist approach is preferred over usage-based or statistical learning. Although the usage-based approach emphasizes that language structure emerges from language use, some advocate the idea that it can account for all aspects of L1 acquisition. For this, quantificational scope interactions pose some challenges. For instance, Goro (2015) looks at Japanese children’s scope interpretations, which are assumed to be the same as adults, given the lack of clear negative evidence (i.e., “everyone loves someone” has only one reading in Japanese). However, empirical data suggest similarities to English (i.e., “everyone loves someone” has two readings). Notice that both readings are accepted by (innate) Universal Grammar in the generative tradition, whereas statistical learning cannot account for over-generation. Goro discusses language-specific constraints on scope interpretation from the learnability perspective, referring to the data from recent experimental studies.

5.3. Quantification and Bound Variable Interpretations in L2

Japanese overt pronouns, kare ‘he’ and kanojo ‘she’, cannot take quantifier antecedents, but null pronouns can. Kanno (1997) argues that L2 learners innately know that overt pronouns cannot have quantifier antecedents when both overt and null pronouns can appear at the same position. However, recent studies with a truth-value judgment task report that English, Turkish, Korean, and Chinese speaking learners of Japanese accepted bound variable readings of the overt pronouns more than half of the time (Hong & Nakayama, 2017; Kahraman & Nakayama, 2015; Masumoto, 2008; Nakayama & Xie, 2016; Pimentel & Nakayama, 2012). This is contrasted with almost perfect acceptance of the bound variable reading with zibun ‘self’ (Kano & Nakayama, 2004). These results cast some doubt on the claims of Kanno (1997), that learners know that the overt pronouns cannot have the bound variable readings. Instead, learners appear to have a default strategy to accept bound variable readings first, once the binding configuration is met. They learn the nature of kare and kanojo as demonstratives later, rejecting the bound variable readings. The results also suggest that Turkish, Korean, and Chinese speaking learners did not have L1 transfer. This quantifier interpretation is another instance of over-generating erroneous interpretations.

5.4. Tense and Aspect Interpretations in L2

Telicity means the aspectual property of a verb phrase that indicates that an action or event has a clear endpoint. The semantic notion telicity exists universally in human languages. However, how it manifests grammatically is different, depending on the language. Gabriele and Hughes (2015) discuss several early 21st century studies that have examined the aspect hypothesis, in which perfective morphology (i.e., grammatical aspect) emerges with lexical aspect before imperfective morphology (Andersen & Shirai, 1996). They also review L1 transfer in L2 Japanese at the levels of grammatical aspect, lexical aspect, and within a noun phrase. The processing of tense and aspect in L2 Japanese are also discussed, specifically about Chinese speaking learners of Japanese (see also Tamaoka, 2015). Readers who are interested in L2 English by Japanese speakers are referred to Yoshimura and Nakayama (2017).

6. Pragmatics and Discourse Studies

Pragmatic uses of various specific expressions have been examined extensively in L1 and L2 acquisition studies. One pragmatic competence often discussed is linguistic politeness, as both L1 and L2 speakers take time to be able to use both plain and polite expressions appropriately, given situational variability and complexity (Cook, 2016; Nakamura, 2006).

Aizuchi, or backchanneling, is also more studied in the early 21st century, especially in L2, as appropriate aizuchi functions as a lubricant for Japanese conversations. To promote a conversation, its timing is very important. For L2 learners’ understanding of aizuchi, readers should refer to Hanzawa (2012). Similarly, to make Japanese conversations more natural, an important competence is co-construction. This phenomenon is seen frequently in Japanese discourse. Indeed it appears often in Japanese, as opposed to English, as reported in Suzuki and Usami (2006). Aizuchi and co-constructions are important discourse devices, and studying these offers a window to Japanese language socialization. As noted, however, Japanese processing studies on pragmatic and discourse issues are scarce, and more studies are being sought. For example, investigating our brain functions when using aizuchi and co-construction would give us a window into understanding how dynamic conversations are processed.

6.1. Narrative Acquisition

Narrative is a vital human activity that reports connected events. Minami (2015) explores questions such as how young Japanese children develop narrative structures, specifically examining their narrative discourse styles and the role of parental input in facilitating the development of children’s personal narratives. He also discusses the relationship between sociocultural background and the development of literacy in young children. For the narrative structures of bilingual children and their topic choices for narrative elicitation in L2 Japanese, readers are referred to Minami (2011, 2016), respectively.

6.2. Uses of Referential Nouns in Discourse

Japanese narrative discourse studies such as Clancy (1980, 1992) and Hinds (1983) reveal that, unlike English, Japanese native speakers use nominal forms and null pronouns in their narratives in place of overt third person pronouns such as kare/kanojo ‘he/she’. More recently, Inoi (2008) and Sawasaki, Terao, and Shirahata (2014) report that Japanese speaking learners of English use more referential nominal forms than pronouns such as he/she/they in their L2 English narration. This is an instance of L1 transfer. If L1 transfer is at work in English speaking L2 Japanese learners’ narration, the use of third person pronouns such as kare/kanojo/karera ‘he/she/they’ would have been observed extensively. However, in L2 Japanese, Tsuchiya, Yoshimura, and Nakayama (2015), and Nakayama, Yoshimura, and Tsuchiya (2016) found that more null pronouns were employed for the third person singular referent in L2 Japanese narratives. They also observed that the use of null pronouns decreased as the learner’s Japanese language proficiency level went up, getting close to that of the L1 Japanese control group. That is, the repetitive use of referential nouns increased as proficiency went up. They attributed this to the instructional effect (i.e., the use of null pronouns in L2 Japanese) and to the fact that it takes time to learn the repetitive use of the referential nouns, as it is observable only at the discourse level, not at the sentence level.

Regarding the interpretation of pronouns, Shoji (2016) investigates the repeated name penalty and the overt pronoun penalty in L1 Japanese. Sentences with repeated name subject anaphors were read slower than overt pronoun subjects when the antecedents were either the grammatical subject or the first-mentioned surface-initial noun phrase of the previous sentence. The overt pronoun-subject-anaphor sentences were read slower than null-pronoun subject anaphors for subject antecedents. When antecedents are subjects or objects, the repeated name penalty and the overt pronoun penalty were detected only when anaphors were marked with ga, not topic anaphors marked with wa. The results indicate that the topic-hood of anaphors activated immediate anaphoric interpretation.

6.3. Pragmatic and Discourse Processing

Pragmatic and discourse processing in Japanese is an important research area, yet it is still in its infancy. There are not many studies. Although Sakamoto (2015) discusses pragmatic and contextual coherence in ERP studies, more examination of how we process linguistics vs. world knowledge seems very important. See also Oishi (2007) on the effects of pragmatic plausibility in ERP. As mentioned, language processing studies only infrequently refer to discourse processing. However, some promising results have been found in Hirotani and Schumacher (2011) and Wang and Schumacher (2013), where contextual relevance is discussed. Shoji (2016) also looks at the wa vs. ga difference as well as empathy-heavy giving and receiving verbs. Discourse processing is an area that still awaits more investigation.

7. Future Investigations

This article offers a snapshot of Japanese psycholinguistic studies in the early 21st century. The field is vibrant and quickly changing. Topics and issues mentioned here are intriguing and promise to advance our understanding of the language acquisition and processing mechanisms. There are, of course, issues that need to be further investigated.

For instance, while Japanese prosody has been studied extensively in L1 acquisition in the early 21st century, it is still not the case in L2 acquisition. The acquisition of sentential prosody by L2 learners needs further investigation (e.g., in L2 Japanese and L2 English by Japanese speaking learners). As discussed, behavioral and neurolinguistic findings provide cumulative support for statistical learning models. However, only quantificational phenomena seem to draw strong support for the generative theory, thus far. If one finds additional grammatical phenomena, where the theory of universal grammar is the best fit to explain them, it would be more convincing for the theory to be maintained. In the field of Japanese language processing, more studies are certainly needed in semantic, pragmatic, and discourse processing areas. Most notably, more investigations are needed to find out how L2 speakers process Japanese (or how Japanese speakers process L2 English). Finally, all sub-field research areas require more data from special populations to compare the data from different populations and further advance our knowledge of how our brain functions.


I thank anonymous Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics reviewers, Noriko Yoshimura, and Zhiguo Xie for their useful comments on earlier versions of this article. All shortcomings are, of course, mine.

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