ARTS1691 Human Language Processing

Psycholinguistic Processing

the area of linguistics concerned with how we use linguistic competence in production and comprehension of language

Human Language Processing

Area of linguistics concerned with how we use linguistic competence in production and comprehension of language.

Biological Levels (tell us nothing about the psychological aspect)

Linguistic thought → Physiological speech → Acoustic sound → Physiological hearing → Linguistic understanding

Psychological Mechanisms

Theories of Linguistic Performance aim to set out psychological mechanisms that work with the competence to allow language production and competence.

  • We break continuous streams of sound into linguistic units: phonemes, syllables, words. We also go the other way, composing sounds so that we can produce meaningful speech.
  • We choose words from our mental lexicon.
  • We manage to use Phrase Structure Representation to make sense of things we hear.

Memory and Processing Limitations

The human brain has limitations in memory and processing, and the following are things that trip us up:

  • Length of sentences
  • Complexity of sentences
  • Complex function words
  • Multiple uses of negation


These are interesting to study, as they teach us about psychological mechanisms.

  • Not understanding tricky sentences
  • Slips of the tongue (parapraxis)
  • Speech errors

Understanding a sentence

(the individual speech sounds)

  • acoustic phonetics
  • pitch of sounds
  • magnitude/intensity of variations
  • shape of vocal tract

Things we have to overcome to understand sentences

  • Segmentation Problem: Sounds overlap and influence each other, sounds get left out or added in to sentences (elision or epenthesis, too – where vowels are skipped or added to make words flow better)
  • Invariance Problem: Different contexts and different people cause sounds and words to be spoken in different ways. How do we hence understand each other?
  • Syntactic Processing has to deal with stress and intonation patterns, (the Whitehouse vs the white house, for instance).

Top Down vs Bottom Up Processing

  • Bottom Up: Acoustic signals are translated into semantic interpretations
  • Top Down: Semantic and syntactic ideas are translated into sensory input

There is most likely an interaction between the two extremes. However evidence suggests that we lean more towards Top Down Processing

Experimental Evidence

  • Word Identification:
    • Words are identified much faster in context than in isolation than in bizarre contexts
  • Buzz/Click Word Restoration:
    • Buzzes over one phoneme in a word are ignored utterly, and reported to have been heard after the word was finished
  • Syntactic Priming
    • Faster recognition of lexical items,
    • (e.g. “I'm reading your palm” primes you for “tree” and “hand”).
  • Speed of Reading
    • Decreases from regularly spelt words to irregularly spelt words to nonsense words.
    • Indicates there are two parallel tasks – lexical look up and word sound-out.
  • Shadowing what others say
    • (i.e. repeating what you hear as rapidly as possible).
    • People often subconsciously correct errors, even when told not to.
    • This shows how fast the mental parser does gramamatical analysis, and how it takes semantic meaning over syntactic form.
  • Preplanning Swaps
    • Spoonerism are a form of these
    • Thinking far enough ahead to know what's coming
    • e.g. ad hoc → odd hack (swapping vowels)
    • big & fat → pig & vat (switching the voiced and voiceless around)
    • they swam across the lake → they laked across the swim (swapping nouns into verbs)

Limits of Lexical Decision Techniques
(deciding if a string of letters is a word or not as fast as possible)

  • Response time is not an accurate representation (it varies between people)
  • Multi-stage tasks means machinery can measure meaning and sound processing separately

Garden Path Sentences

(as in, intended to lead you astray and trick your parser)

  • the man who hunts(,) ducks out on weekends
  • after the child visited(,) the doctor prescribed a series of injections
  • the cotton (that) clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi
  • fat (that) people eat accumulates
  • the prime number few (i.e. there are few that are the best)
  • the horse (that) raced past the barn fell

Books that I should Read: The Magic Number 7 +/- 2