Language Processing

1. Encoding and Navigating Structure

We can easily diagram sentence structures on a blackboard. But what do those diagrams correspond to in (neuro-)cognitive terms? And what does it mean to “form dependencies” and “manipulate the structures”? This is the research question that our team has worried about the most in recent years.

Two independent developments converged to make this a very productive topic for us.

Selective fallibility and linguistic illusions: around 2000 we started to explore whether detailed grammatical constraints are respected in comprehension. In other words, does the parser construct all and only the representations that are sanctioned by the grammar. The original hope was that the answer would be “yes”, and for a few years the results pointed to that conclusion.

But things got a lot more interesting once we dug into cases of linguistic illusions, i.e., cases where people appear to accept incoherent sentences, e.g., More people have been to Russia than I have, or agreement with an incorrect controller, e.g., The key to the cabinets were on the table, or licensing of a negative polarity item by an inappropriate negation, e.g., The bills that no democratic senators voted for will ever become law. The contrast between the cases of success and failure begs the question of what is responsible for the “selective fallibility”.

Content-addressable memory: Research on memory processes provides strong support for content-addressable memory (CAM), i.e., items in memory are accessed based on retrieval cues rather than on a memory address. This is why it’s hard to remember what you ate for dinner 4 days ago. Psychologists Brian McElree and Peter Gordon highlighted evidence that this memory architecture is also used for human language. CAM-based access has distinctive timing profiles (long ≠ slow) and interference profiles (mis-retrieval of items similar to the target memory). Computational psycholinguists Shravan Vasishth and Rick Lewis captured these properties in an implemented and accessible model (ACT-R). The model makes clear predictions, which only partly fit our selective fallibility profile.

This set the stage for research in which a cycle of modeling and experimentation seeks to explain the selective fallibility profile. This generated clear hypotheses about how structures are encoded and navigated mentally. In our team, Matt Wagers, Ellen Lau, Brian Dillon, and Ming Xiang set us down this path.

Phase 1 – Dependency-wise differences: our first bet was that selective fallibility should be understood at the grain size of dependency types, e.g., subject-verb agreement is prone to illusions but subject-reflexive licensing is not (Dillon et al. 2013). We ran many studies in pursuit of this idea. And we found ways to capture both sides of the selective fallibility profile within a CAM architecture.

Phase 2 – Turning illusions on/off: recent findings by Dan Parker and Dave Kush challenge our earlier framing of the problem. Dan found that robust illusions could be turned off (NPIs: Parker & Phillips 2014a), and that illusions could be turned on in cases that we had thought immune (reflexives: Parker & Phillips 2014b). Meanwhile, Dave’s studies on c-command sensitive phenomena such as bound variable anaphora suggested that comprehenders can show greater structure sensitivity than we had thought possible in a CAM-based architecture.

Getting to the bottom of this will keep us busy for a while yet.

2. Linguistic Architecture

Locality

Are locality constraints in grammar (islands etc.) and language processing (longer = harder) ultimately the same? This possibility attracts many in both fields, but it is challenged by our findings from head-final languages such as Japanese and Bengali, whose properties distinguish structural and linear/temporal locality. (Aoshima et al. 2004; Omaki et al. 2014; Chacón et al. 2014)

Syntax-Semantics Coupling

A routine assumption in linguistics and psycholinguistics alike is that combinatorial semantic interpretation closely follows syntactic structure. Recent ERP findings have been taken as challenges to this orthodoxy, motivating independent semantic composition. Our own ERP studies in English, Chinese, and Spanish support the standard view. Perhaps. (Stroud & Phillips 2012; Chow & Phillips 2013)

Comprehension-Production Relations

Comprehension-production differences present a prima facie argument for a traditional linguistic architecture with a task- and time-independent grammar. The grammar is what links the comprehension and production systems. Shota Momma, Bob Slevc and I are trying to better understand this relation, focusing initially on look-ahead in production. (Momma et al. 2014ab)

Plug-and-play

If there’s no task-specific comprehension system, distinct from the grammar, then we should be able to explain language processing phenomena by embedding a grammar in a general cognitive architecture, with no mechanisms specific to language processing. We have recently begun to explore the feasibility of this. (Lewis & Phillips 2014; Parker 2014)

3. Prediction

We suspect that predictive mechanisms may be important contributors to the speed and robustness of language understanding. When comprehenders can anticipate what is likely to be said, they can process the input more quickly and more successfully in noise.

In earlier work we argued that predictive mechanisms are responsible for the ELAN, an ERP response whose speed is almost too good to be true (Lau et al. 2006). We suggested that predictive mechanisms also underlie some instances of extreme grammatical fidelity in comprehension (Phillips et al. 2011). And we argued that the N400 ERP response is a relatively direct reflection of lexical predictions in comprehension (Lau et al. 2008).

But Wing Yee Chow’s recent findings on the N400’s temporary “blindness” to highly predictive information makes things rather more interesting. Her studies on role-reversed sentences show that some types of predictive information is accessed more quickly than others. This clears a path for explicit models of how predictions are generated. More to come!

4. Variation and Learning

Can differences in language processing abilities aid our understanding of learning outcomes? Perhaps — it depends what you mean.

Explaining failures: language processing abilities may account for some of children’s failings. Errors in the interpretation of anaphora such as the notorious Delay of Principle B Effect may reflect immature reanalysis and cognitive control systems, rather than failure of grammatical learning (Conroy et al. 2009).

Distorted input? In light of the well-documented cases of children’s parsing errors (e.g., Trueswell et al. 1999), there is a danger that children’s misparsing could lead to distortion of crucial distributional evidence for learning. Example: if a child only ever accesses a local interpretation of an ambiguous wh-dependency, might she incorrectly conclude that the target grammar only allows local dependencies? Akira Omaki has paid close attention to this concern (Omaki et al. 2014), and he’ll continue to do so. The jury remains out on how serious this concern is.

Explaining success? Is there any way that population differences in language processing abilities could explain why children are more successful language learners than adults? Good question. Check back soon.

Publications in Language Processing

(including PhD dissertations)

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Wellwood, Alexis; Pancheva, Roumyana; Hacquard, Valentine; Phillips, Colin (2017): The anatomy of a comparative illusion . In: 2017, (submitted, revised April 2017). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Claudia Felser Colin Phillips, Matthew Wagers (2017): Editorial: Encoding and navigating linguistic representations in memory . In: Frontiers in Psychology, 8 , pp. 164, 2017. (Type: Journal Article | Links | BibTeX)
Parker, Dan; Phillips, Colin (2017): Reflexive attraction in comprehension is selective . In: Journal of Memory and Language, 94 , pp. 272-290, 2017. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lago, Sol; Sloggett, Shayne; Schlueter, Zoe; Chow, Wing Yee; Williams, Alexander; Lau, Ellen; Phillips, Colin (2017): Coreference and antecedent representation across languages . In: Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2017. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Dave Kush Jeffrey Lidz, Colin Phillips (2016): Looking forwards and backwards: the real-time processing of Strong and Weak Crossover . In: 2016, (submitted to Glossa). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Parker, Dan; Phillips, Colin (2016): Negative polarity illusions and the format of hierarchical encodings in memory . In: Cognition, 157 , pp. 321-339, 2016. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chacón, Dustin Alfonso; Imtiaz, Mashrur; Dasgupta, Shirsho; Murshed, Sikder Monoare; Dan, Mina; Phillips, Colin (2016): Locality and word order in active dependency formation in Bangla . In: Frontiers in Psychology, 7 , pp. 1235, 2016. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Malko, Anton; Ehrenhofer, Lara; Phillips, Colin (2016): Theories and frameworks in second language processing . In: Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 2016, (in press; brief commentary on target article by Ian Cunnings: "Parsing and working memory in bilingual sentence processing"). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Momma, Shota (2016): Parsing, generation, and grammar . University of Maryland, 2016. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chow, Wing Yee; Lau, Ellen; Wang, Suiping; Phillips, Colin (2016): Timing is everything: the temporal dynamics of word prediction . 2016, (submitted for publication). (Type: Unpublished | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chow, Wing Yee; Momma, Shota; Smith, Cybelle; Lau, Ellen; Phillips, Colin (2016): Prediction as memory retrieval: timing and mechanisms . In: Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience, 2016, (in press). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Ehrenhofer, Lara (2015): The role of language processing in language acquisition . In: Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 5 (4), pp. 409-453, 2015, (target article with 17 commentaries & response). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Ehrenhofer, Lara (2015): Learning obscure and obvious properties of languages . In: Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 5 (4), pp. 545-555, 2015, (response to 17 commentaries on target article "The role of language processing in language acquisition"). (Type: Journal Article | Links | BibTeX)
Parker, Dan; Lago, Sol; Phillips, Colin (2015): Interference in the processing of adjunct control . In: Frontiers in Psychology, 6 (1346), pp. 1-13, 2015. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chacón, Dustin Alfonso (2015): Comparative psychosyntax . University of Maryland, 2015. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chacón, Dustin Alfonso; Momma, Shota; Phillips, Colin (2015): Linguistic representations and memory architectures: The devil is in the details . In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2015, (in press, commentary on target article by Christiansen & Chater). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Omaki, Akira; Lau, Ellen; White, Imogen Davidson; Dakan, Myles; Apple, Aaron; Phillips, Colin (2015): Hyper-active gap filling . In: Frontiers in Psychology, 6:384 , 2015, (doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00384). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kush, Dave; Lidz, Jeffrey; Phillips, Colin (2015): Relation-sensitive retrieval: evidence from bound variable pronouns . In: Journal of Memory and Language, 82 , pp. 18-40, 2015. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lago, Sol; Shalom, Diego; Sigman, Mariano; Lau, Ellen; Phillips, Colin (2015): Agreement processes in Spanish comprehension . In: Journal of Memory and Language, 82 , pp. 133-149, 2015. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lewis, Shevaun; Phillips, Colin (2015): Aligning grammatical theories and language processing models . In: Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 44 (1), pp. 27-46, 2015. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Parker, Dan (2014): The psycholinguistics of ellipsis . In: Lingua, 151 , pp. 78-95, 2014, (published online Nov 27, 2013). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kush, Dave; Phillips, Colin (2014): Local anaphor licensing in an SOV language: implications for retrieval strategies . In: Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (1252), 2014. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Dillon, Brian; Chow, Wing Yee; Wagers, Matthew; Guo, Taomei; Liu, Fengqin; Phillips, Colin (2014): The structure-sensitivity of memory access: evidence from Mandarin Chinese . In: Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (1025), 2014, (doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01025). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lago, Maria Sol (2014): Memory and prediction in cross-linguistic sentence comprehension . University of Maryland, 2014. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Parker, Daniel (2014): The cognitive basis for encoding and navigating linguistic structure . University of Maryland, 2014. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chow, Wing Yee; Lewis, Shevaun; Phillips, Colin (2014): Immediate sensitivity to structural constraints in pronoun resolution . In: Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (630), 2014. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Omaki, Akira; White, Imogen Davidson; Goro, Takuya; Lidz, Jeffrey; Phillips, Colin (2014): No fear of commitment: children's incremental interpretation in English and Japanese wh-questions . In: Language Learning and Development, 10 , pp. 206-233, 2014. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Wagers, Matthew W; Phillips, Colin (2014): Going the distance: memory and control processes in active dependency construction . In: Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 167 (7), pp. 1274-1304, 2014. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chow, Wing Yee (2013): The temporal dimension of linguistic prediction . University of Maryland, 2013. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kush, Dave (2013): Respecting relations: memory access and antecedent retrieval in incremental sentence processing . University of Maryland, 2013. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lewis, Shevaun (2013): Pragmatic enrichment in language processing and development . University of Maryland, 2013. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Dillon, Brian; Mishler, Alan; Sloggett, Shayne; Phillips, Colin (2013): Contrasting intrusion profiles for agreement and anaphora: experimental and modeling evidence . In: Journal of Memory and Language, 69 , pp. 85-103, 2013. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Chow, Wing Yee; Phillips, Colin (2013): No semantic illusion in the 'semantic P600' phenomenon: ERP evidence from Mandarin Chinese . In: Brain Research, 1506 , pp. 76-93, 2013. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin (2013): Some arguments and non-arguments for reductionist accounts of syntactic phenomena . In: Language and Cognitive Processes, 28 , pp. 156-187, 2013. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin (2013): Parser-grammar relations: We don’t understand everything twice . In: Sanz, Montserrat; Laka, Itziar; Tanenhaus, Michael (Ed.): Language down the garden path: the cognitive basis for linguistic structure, pp. 294–315, Oxford University Press, 2013. (Type: Incollection | Links | BibTeX)
Dillon, Brian; Nevins, Andrew; Austin, Alison C; Phillips, Colin (2012): Syntactic and semantic predictors of tense in Hindi: An ERP investigation . In: Language and Cognitive Processes, 27 (3), pp. 313-344, 2012. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Stroud, Clare; Phillips, Colin (2012): Examining the evidence for an independent semantic analyzer: An ERP study in Spanish . In: Brain and Language, 120 , pp. 107-126, 2012. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Alcocer, Pedro; Phillips, Colin (2012): Using relational syntactic constraints in content-addressable memory architectures for sentence parsing . 2012. (Type: Unpublished | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Dillon, Brian (2011): Structured access in sentence comprehension . University of Maryland, 2011. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Wagers, Matthew W; Lau, Ellen F (2011): Grammatical Illusions and Selective Fallibility in Real-Time Language Comprehension . In: Runner, Jeffrey (Ed.): Experiments at the Interfaces. Syntax & Semantics, vol. 37, pp. 147–180, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2011. (Type: Incollection | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Omaki, Akira (2010): Commitment and flexibility in the developing parser . University of Maryland, 2010. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Gouvea, Ana C; Phillips, Colin; Kazanina, Nina; Poeppel, David (2010): The linguistic processes underlying the P600 . In: Language and Cognitive Processes, 25 (2), pp. 149–188, 2010. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina; Phillips, Colin (2010): Differential effects of constraints in the processing of Russian cataphora . In: The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63 (2), pp. 371–400, 2010. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lau, Ellen (2009): The predictive nature of language comprehension . University of Maryland, 2009. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Wagers, Matthew W; Lau, Ellen F; Phillips, Colin (2009): Agreement attraction in comprehension: Representations and processes . In: Journal of Memory and Language, 61 (2), pp. 206–237, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Xiang, Ming; Dillon, Brian; Phillips, Colin (2009): Illusory licensing effects across dependency types: ERP evidence . In: Brain and Language, 108 (1), pp. 40–55, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Aoshima, Sachiko; Yoshida, Masaya; Phillips, Colin (2009): Incremental processing of coreference and binding in Japanese . In: Syntax, 12 (2), pp. 93–134, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Wagers, Matthew W; Phillips, Colin (2009): Multiple dependencies and the role of the grammar in real-time comprehension . In: Journal of Linguistics, 45 (02), pp. 395–433, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Hsu, Chun-chieh Natalie; Hurewitz, Felicia; Phillips, Colin (2009): Context influences structure generation: evidence from Chinese . 2009, (submitted for publication). (Type: Unpublished | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Stroud, Clare (2008): Structural and semantic selectivity in the electrophysiology of sentence comprehension . University of Maryland, 2008. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
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