Cognition - Lecture 13 (Language Comprehension)

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  • Lecture 13 - Language Comprehension
    • The end product of text / discourse comprehension
      • A "mental model" or "situational representation"
        • A representationof the meaning conveyed, contracted in memory as we read: who is doing what, where, how, why
          • The active "leading edge" of this representation is in working memory
        • In the real of imaginary world described in the text
        • Text/discourse is not only vehicle for creating a mental model. Direct experience does so as well
        • The mental model is not represented in language, but in a propositional "language of thought" specifying the elements and their relationship
          • Not just a pictorial "image" in the mind
    • Sentence meaning = the propositions stated + the "speech act"
      • Sentences state (explicitly and implicitly) propositions, which we must extract and link:
        • To understand connected discourse, we must link "given" and "new" propositions within and across sentences
          • And pick up the "speech act": assertion of facts, questioning etc.
      • Comprehension activates, and adds propositions to existing knowledge in memory
    • How do we know what propositions to build?
      • Syntax (sentence structure)
        • Sentences have tree-like structure, an ordered hierarchy of constituents ("phrases") which occupy essential role in relation to a main verb
      • Constituents replaceable by others of same type without changing structure: innumerable possible sentences, limited range of structures in each language
    • Sentence structure clues
      • Word order
      • Function words - small fixed set of grammatical words that do structure-signalling jobs
      • Word-modifying "morphological inflections" - signalling number, case, tense
      • Evidence for a specialised structure-computing module in our brains:
        • Some of Broca's aphasia patients have trouble understanding...
          • Syntactically complex sentences, simple reversible sentences, and sentences whose meaning depends critically on affixes and function words
    • Level of ambiguity in language
      • Lexical ambiguity - words with several distinct senses
      • Syntactic ambiguity - ambiguous sentence structures
      • Ambiguity of reference + speech act ambiguity
    • Interpreting the writer / speaker's intention
      • Utterances have surface forms which directly indicate a speech act (declaration, question etc)
        • But any form uttered in a suitable context can be used to perform an indirect speech act of a different kind
          • We have to infer the speech act intended from extra-linguistic cues (body language) and general knowledge
            • Some inferencing is automatic - we remember what we infer as if it were explicitly stated
      • Some social/legal speech acts are signalled directly by the use of particular words, but work only in a felicitous context ("I declare you man and wife")
    • Local lexical and syntactic ambiguity
      • Many words or structures are ambiguous until later info tells us how to interpret them
        • We usually disambiguate the meaning without awareness of the ambiguity or noticeable perturbation
          • Average fixation durations are longer on ambiguous words
            • We sometimes have to backtrack to make sense of a lexical or syntactic ambiguity
              • During reading such "garden path" sentences often result in regressive eye movements


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