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Acoustic Theories of Speech Perception  

Melissa Redford and Melissa Baese-Berk

Acoustic theories assume that speech perception begins with an acoustic signal transformed by auditory processing. In classical acoustic theory, this assumption entails perceptual primitives that are akin to those identified in the spectral analyses of speech. The research objective is to link these primitives with phonological units of traditional descriptive linguistics via sound categories and then to understand how these units/categories are bound together in time to recognize words. Achieving this objective is challenging because the signal is replete with variation, making the mapping of signal to sound category nontrivial. Research that grapples with the mapping problem has led to many basic findings about speech perception, including the importance of cue redundancy to category identification and of differential cue weighting to category formation. Research that grapples with the related problem of binding categories into words for speech processing motivates current neuropsychological work on speech perception. The central focus on the mapping problem in classical theory has also led to an alternative type of acoustic theory, namely, exemplar-based theory. According to this type of acoustic theory, variability is critical for processing talker-specific information during speech processing. The problems associated with mapping acoustic cues to sound categories is not addressed because exemplar-based theories assume that perceptual traces of whole words are perceptual primitives. Smaller units of speech sound representation, as well as the phonology as a whole, are emergent from the word-based representations. Yet, like classical acoustic theories, exemplar-based theories assume that production is mediated by a phonology that has no inherent motor information. The presumed disconnect between acoustic and motor information during perceptual processing distinguishes acoustic theories as a class from other theories of speech perception.


Acquisition of Inflection in Romance Languages  

Christophe Parisse

Inflection is present in all Romance languages, even if at times it can be replaced by the use of clitic elements. It is therefore a crucial feature of the language for children to acquire. The acquisition of inflected forms was studied in the nominal, verbal, and adjectival systems because it is present from the very first forms produced by children. Data are presented from the literature for six languages: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, and Romanian. For all these languages, there exist open access corpus data available on the CHILDES website, which make it possible to have first-hand access to actual spoken data for these languages. Results show that children produce correct forms very early on for the most frequent grammatical elements (by age 2 for most children, but sometimes as early as age 18 months). This includes the use of nouns and determiners in both genders, and the use of verbs in the present, perfect, and imperative forms. Verbs are produced first in the third person, followed by the other persons. Nouns and verbs are used in the singular form before being used in the plural form. Other more complex grammatical forms, such as, for example, the imperfective past tense or the present conditional, emerge only later, and this is probably related to the semantics of the forms rather than their complexity. In most cases, there is correct agreement between noun and determiner, or verb and personal pronoun, or noun and verb. Errors are infrequent, and the nature of the errors can be used as means to study the mechanisms of language acquisition.


Iterative Meaning in Mandarin Chinese: Linguistic Factors and its Processing  

Huei-ling Lai and Yao-Ying Lai

Sentential meaning that emerges compositionally is not always transparent as one-to-one mapping from syntactic structure to semantic representation; oftentimes, the meaning is underspecified (morphosyntactically unsupported), not explicitly conveyed via overt linguistic devices. Compositional meaning is obtained during comprehension. The associated issues are explored by examining linguistic factors that modulate the construal of underspecified iterative meaning in Mandarin Chinese (MC). In this case, the factors include lexical aspect of verbs, the interval-lengths denoted by post-verbal durative adverbials, and boundary specificity denoted by preverbal versus post-verbal temporal adverbials. The composition of a punctual verb (e.g., jump, poke) with a durative temporal adverbial like Zhangsan tiao-le shi fenzhong. Zhangsan jump-LE ten minute ‘Zhangsan jumped for ten minutes’ engenders an iterative meaning, which is morphosyntactically absent yet fully understood by comprehenders. Contrastively, the counterpart involving a durative verb (e.g., run, swim) like Zhangsan pao-le shi fenzhong Zhangsan run-LE ten minute ‘Zhangsan ran for ten minutes’ engenders a continuous reading with identical syntactic structure. Psycholinguistically, processing such underspecified meaning in real time has been shown to require greater effort than the transparent counterpart. This phenomenon has been attested cross-linguistically; yet how it is manifested in MC, a tenseless language, remains understudied. In addition, durative temporal adverbials like yizhi/buduandi ‘continuously,’ which appear preverbally in MC, also engender an iterative meaning when composed with a punctual verb like Zhangsan yizhi/buduandi tiao. Zhangsan continuously jump ‘Zhangsan jumped continuously.’ Crucially, unlike the post-verbal adverbials that encode specific boundaries for the denoted intervals, these preverbal adverbials refer to continuous time spans without specific endpoints. The difference in boundary specificity between the two adverbial types, while both being durative, is hypothesized to modulate the processing profiles of aspectual comprehension. Results of the online (timed) questionnaire showed (a) an effect of boundary specificity: sentences with post-verbal adverbials that encode [+specific boundary] were rated lower in the naturalness-rating task and induced longer response time (RT) in iterativity judgements, as compared to preverbal adverbials that encode [−specific boundary]; (b) in composition with post-verbal adverbials that are [+specific boundary], sentences involving durative verbs elicited lower rating scores and longer RT of iterativity judgements than the counterpart involving punctual verbs. These suggest that the comprehension of underspecified iterative meaning is modulated by both cross-linguistically similar parameters and language-specific systems of temporal reference, by which MC exhibits a typological difference in processing profiles. Overall, the patterns are consistent with the Context-Dependence approach to semantic underspecification: comprehenders compute the ultimate reading (iterative versus continuous) by taking both the sentential and extra-sentential information into consideration in a given context.


Functional Word Acquisition in Mandarin Chinese  

Xiaolu Yang

Functional categories carry little or no semantic content by themselves and contribute crucially to sentence structure. In the generative framework, they are assumed to mark and head functional projections in the basic hierarchical structure underlying each phrase or sentence. Given their intertwining with grammar, child language researchers have long been attracted by the development of functional categories. To a child, it is important to differentiate functional categories from lexical categories and relate each of them to the hidden hierarchical structure of the phrase or sentence. The learning of a functional category is no easy task and implies the development of different dimensions of linguistic knowledge, including the lexical realization of the functional category in the ambient language, the specific grammatical function it serves, the abstract underlying structure, and the semantic properties of the associated structure. A central issue in the acquisition of functional categories concerns whether children have access to functional categories early in language development. Differing accounts have been proposed. According to the maturational view, functional categories are absent in children’s initial grammar and mature later. In contrast to the maturational view is the continuity view, which assumes children’s continuous access to functional categories throughout language development. Cross-linguistic evidence from production and experimental studies has been accumulated in support of the continuity hypothesis. Mandarin Chinese has a rich inventory of function words, though it lacks overt inflectional markers. De, aspect markers, ba, and sentence final particles are among the most commonly used function words and play a fundamental role in sentence structure in Mandarin Chinese in that they are functional categories that head various functional projections in the hierarchical structure. Acquisition studies show that these function words emerge early in development and children’s use of these function words is mostly target-like, offering evidence for the continuity view of functional categories as well as insights into child grammar in Mandarin Chinese.


Lexical Representations in Language Processing  

Gary Libben

Words are the backbone of language activity. An average 20-year-old native speaker of English will have a vocabulary of about 42,000 words. These words are connected with one another within the larger network of lexical knowledge that is termed the mental lexicon. The metaphor of a mental lexicon has played a central role in the development of theories of language and mind and has provided an intellectual meeting ground for psychologists, neurolinguists, and psycholinguists. Research on the mental lexicon has shown that lexical knowledge is not static. New words are acquired throughout the life span, creating very large increases in the richness of connectivity within the lexical system and changing the system as a whole. Because most people in the world speak more than one language, the default mental lexicon may be a multilingual one. Such a mental lexicon differs substantially from a lexicon of an individual language and would lead to the creation of new integrated lexical systems due to the pressure on the system to organize and access lexical knowledge in a homogenous manner. The mental lexicon contains both word knowledge and morphological knowledge. There is also evidence that it contains multiword strings such as idioms and lexical bundles. This speaks in support of a nonrestrictive “big tent” view of units of representation within the mental lexicon. Changes in research on lexical representations in language processing have emphasized lexical action and the role of learning. Although the metaphor of words as distinct representations within a lexical store has served to advance knowledge, it is more likely that words are best seen as networks of activity that are formed and affected by experience and learning throughout the life span.


Psycholinguistic Research on Inflectional Morphology in the Romance Languages  

Claudia Marzi and Vito Pirrelli

Over the past decades, psycholinguistic aspects of word processing have made a considerable impact on views of language theory and language architecture. In the quest for the principles governing the ways human speakers perceive, store, access, and produce words, inflection issues have provided a challenging realm of scientific inquiry, and a battlefield for radically opposing views. It is somewhat ironic that some of the most influential cognitive models of inflection have long been based on evidence from an inflectionally impoverished language like English, where the notions of inflectional regularity, (de)composability, predictability, phonological complexity, and default productivity appear to be mutually implied. An analysis of more “complex” inflection systems such as those of Romance languages shows that this mutual implication is not a universal property of inflection, but a contingency of poorly contrastive, nearly isolating inflection systems. Far from presenting minor faults in a solid, theoretical edifice, Romance evidence appears to call into question the subdivision of labor between rules and exceptions, the on-line processing vs. long-term memory dichotomy, and the distinction between morphological processes and lexical representations. A dynamic, learning-based view of inflection is more compatible with this data, whereby morphological structure is an emergent property of the ways inflected forms are processed and stored, grounded in universal principles of lexical self-organization and their neuro-functional correlates.


Discriminative Learning and the Lexicon: NDL and LDL  

Yu-Ying Chuang and R. Harald Baayen

Naive discriminative learning (NDL) and linear discriminative learning (LDL) are simple computational algorithms for lexical learning and lexical processing. Both NDL and LDL assume that learning is discriminative, driven by prediction error, and that it is this error that calibrates the association strength between input and output representations. Both words’ forms and their meanings are represented by numeric vectors, and mappings between forms and meanings are set up. For comprehension, form vectors predict meaning vectors. For production, meaning vectors map onto form vectors. These mappings can be learned incrementally, approximating how children learn the words of their language. Alternatively, optimal mappings representing the end state of learning can be estimated. The NDL and LDL algorithms are incorporated in a computational theory of the mental lexicon, the ‘discriminative lexicon’. The model shows good performance both with respect to production and comprehension accuracy, and for predicting aspects of lexical processing, including morphological processing, across a wide range of experiments. Since, mathematically, NDL and LDL implement multivariate multiple regression, the ‘discriminative lexicon’ provides a cognitively motivated statistical modeling approach to lexical processing.


New Computational Methods and the Study of the Romance Languages  

Basilio Calderone and Vito Pirrelli

Nowadays, computer models of human language are instrumental to millions of people, who use them every day with little if any awareness of their existence and role. Their exponential development has had a huge impact on daily life through practical applications like machine translation or automated dialogue systems. It has also deeply affected the way we think about language as an object of scientific inquiry. Computer modeling of Romance languages has helped scholars develop new theoretical frameworks and new ways of looking at traditional approaches. In particular, computer modeling of lexical phenomena has had a profound influence on some fundamental issues in human language processing, such as the purported dichotomy between rules and exceptions, or grammar and lexicon, the inherently probabilistic nature of speakers’ perception of analogy and word internal structure, and their ability to generalize to novel items from attested evidence. Although it is probably premature to anticipate and assess the prospects of these models, their current impact on language research can hardly be overestimated. In a few years, data-driven assessment of theoretical models is expected to play an irreplaceable role in pacing progress in all branches of language sciences, from typological and pragmatic approaches to cognitive and formal ones.


Neurolinguistic Research on the Romance Languages  

Valentina Bambini and Paolo Canal

Neurolinguistics is devoted to the study of the language-brain relationship, using the methodologies of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience to investigate how linguistic categories are grounded in the brain. Although the brain infrastructure for language is invariable across cultures, neural networks might operate differently depending on language-specific features. In this respect, neurolinguistic research on the Romance languages, mostly French, Italian, and Spanish, proved key to progress the field, especially with specific reference to how the neural infrastructure for language works in the case of more richly inflected systems than English. Among the most popular domains of investigation are agreement patterns, where studies on Spanish and Italian showed that agreement across features and domains (e.g., number or gender agreement) engages partially different neural substrates. Also, studies measuring the electrophysiological response suggested that agreement processing is a composite mechanism involving different temporal steps. Another domain is the noun-verb distinction, where studies on the Romance languages indicated that the brain is more sensitive to the greater morphosyntactic engagement of verbs compared with nouns rather than to the grammatical class distinction per se. Concerning language disorders, the Romance languages shed new light on inflectional errors in aphasic speakers and contributed to revise the notion of agrammatism, which is not simply omission of morphemes but might involve incorrect substitution from the inflectional paradigm. Also, research in the Romance domain showed variation in degree and pattern of reading impairments due to language-specific segmental and suprasegmental features. Despite these important contributions, the Romance family, with its multitude of languages and dialects and a richly documented diachronic evolution, is a still underutilized ‘treasure house’ for neurolinguistic research, with significant room for investigations exploring the brain signatures of language variation in time and space and refining the linking between linguistic categories and neurobiological primitives.


The Phonetics of Prosody  

Amalia Arvaniti

Prosody is an umbrella term used to cover a variety of interconnected and interacting phenomena, namely stress, rhythm, phrasing, and intonation. The phonetic expression of prosody relies on a number of parameters, including duration, amplitude, and fundamental frequency (F0). The same parameters are also used to encode lexical contrasts (such as tone), as well as paralinguistic phenomena (such as anger, boredom, and excitement). Further, the exact function and organization of the phonetic parameters used for prosody differ across languages. These considerations make it imperative to distinguish the linguistic phenomena that make up prosody from their phonetic exponents, and similarly to distinguish between the linguistic and paralinguistic uses of the latter. A comprehensive understanding of prosody relies on the idea that speech is prosodically organized into phrasal constituents, the edges of which are phonetically marked in a number of ways, for example, by articulatory strengthening in the beginning and lengthening at the end. Phrases are also internally organized either by stress, that is around syllables that are more salient relative to others (as in English and Spanish), or by the repetition of a relatively stable tonal pattern over short phrases (as in Korean, Japanese, and French). Both types of organization give rise to rhythm, the perception of speech as consisting of groups of a similar and repetitive pattern. Tonal specification over phrases is also used for intonation purposes, that is, to mark phrasal boundaries, and express information structure and pragmatic meaning. Taken together, the components of prosody help with the organization and planning of speech, while prosodic cues are used by listeners during both language acquisition and speech processing. Importantly, prosody does not operate independently of segments; rather, it profoundly affects segment realization, making the incorporation of an understanding of prosody into experimental design essential for most phonetic research.