Psycholinguistics II - Spring 2016

LING 641


This course is the second half of a year-long foundation course sequence in psycholinguistics, aimed at graduate students from any language science field. The course sequence assumes no specific background in psycholinguistics, including experimentation or statistics, but the second semester course builds upon the first. The second semester course focuses on language learning and language processing issues above the level of individual words, and it is unapologetic about the need to engage with linguistic detail.

Psycholinguistics is a broad field. In principle, it includes all areas of the mentalistic study of language, including the various fields of so-called formal/theoretical linguistics, plus language acquisition and the neuroscience of language. And while we’re at it, why not throw in language disorders and second language acquisition for good measure? Due to this breadth, psycholinguistics can sometimes appear like a scientific archipelago – many interesting but disconnected islands. We will make no attempt to tour all of these islands in this course. Instead, we will focus on trying to understand the overall space, how the pieces fit together, and recurring themes and problems. The course will focus on:

  • The scope and goals of psycholinguistics
  • Tools needed to carry out psycholinguistic research, especially simple experiments
  • Linking experimental findings to conclusions about mechanisms
  • Highlighting connections between different areas of psycholinguistics
  • Identifying the frontiers of current understanding

As in the first semester course, we will devote a lot of time to examining ‘model’ problems in depth. These allow us to gain a better understanding of hard questions in the field, and the morals of our discussions should generalize to other problems.

Mondays & Wednesdays, 12:00 – 1:30
1108B Marie Mount Hall

The key themes for the course are clear, but the schedule will follow the discussion. The themes are:

  • Learning detailed linguistic representations & constraints
  • Real-time language processes and mental architecture
  • The relation between learning and real-time processes

Jan 25: snow day!
Jan 27: Scene setting: levels of analysis

Feb 1: Scene setting: learning problems
Feb 3: Learning and cross-language variation

Feb 8: Learning and distributional analysis
Feb 10:

Feb 15: Learning and parsing
Feb 17: Learning and parsing

Feb 22:
Feb 24:

Feb 29:
Mar 2:

Mar 7:
Mar 9:


Mar 21:
Mar 23:

Mar 28:
Mar 30:

Apr 4:
Apr 6:

Apr 11: Colin away (UConn)
Apr 13: Colin away (Oxford)

Apr 18:
Apr 20:

Apr 25: TBD (Colin in Edinburgh, but hoping to hold class remotely)
Apr 27: Delayed start

May 2: No class: NSF-NRT Annual Meeting at UMD
May 4: No classConference on Future of Graduate STEM Training (Washington DC)

May 9:


This is graduate school. Your grade should not be your top concern here. You should be aiming to get a top grade, but your focus should be on using the course to develop the skills that will serve you well in your research. There will be no exams for this course. The focus of the course is on reading, discussing, writing and doing throughout the semester, and hence your entire grade will be based upon this. If you want to get the maximum benefit from this class (i.e. learn lots and have a grade to show for it at the end), you will do the following …

1. Come to class prepared, and participate (15% of grade).

Being prepared means having done some reading and thinking before coming to class. Writing down your initial thoughts or questions about the article(s) is likely to help. Although many readings are listed for this course, you are not expected to read them all from beginning to end. An important skill to develop is the ability to efficiently extract ideas and information from writing. Particpating in class discussions is valuable because it makes you an active learner and greatly increases the likelihood that you will understand and retain the material. You should also feel free to contact me outside of class with questions that you have about the material.

2. Think carefully and write clearly in assignments (85% of grade).

The assignments will come in a variety of formats. In lab assignments you will get hands-on experience with various research techniques in psycholinguistics, plus experience in reporting the results of those experiments. In writing assignments you will think and write about issues raised in class and in the assigned readings. The writing assignment may sometimes be due before the material is discussed in class: this will help you to be better prepared for class and to form your own opinions in advance of class discussion. In your writing it is important to write clearly and provide support for claims that you make.

f you are worried about how you are doing in the course, do not hesitate to contact me. Email is generally the most reliable way of reaching me.

Grade scale

 A 80-100%  B- 60-65%
 A- 75-80%  C+ 55-60%
 B+ 70-75%  C 50-55%
 B 65-70%  C- 45-50%

Note that even in the A range there is plenty of room for you to show extra initiative and insight. The threshold for A is deliberately set low, so that you have an opportunity to get additional credit for more creative work.


Written work should be submitted individually, unless the assignment guidelines state otherwise or you have made prior arrangements with the instructor, but you are strongly encouraged to work together on labs and homeworks in addition to group projects. Academic honesty includes giving appropriate credit to collaborators.  Although collaboration is encouraged, collaboration should not be confused with writing up the results of a classmate’s work – this is unacceptable. If you work as a part of a group, you should indicate this at the top of your assignment when you submit it.


The assignments for the course consist of a mix of shorter and longer written assignments, together with practical lab assignments. The lab assignments are a major component of the course, and are designed to give you first-hand experience with experimental and computational techniques used in psycholinguistic research. You will have around 2 weeks for each lab assignment.

Assignment #1

Due Wednesday February 10th.

Read the following:

Each of these works describes a learning problem in a different domain of grammar. The learning problem that Chomsky describes has achieved a huge amount of attention. The learning problem addressed by Pinker has received moderate attention. The learning problem investigated by Goro has received very little attention.

Do these three problems present the same challenges for learners? If they present different learning challenges, explain how they are different. Give a clear statement of what the learning problem is in each case. If you see similarities and differences between the three learning problems, then it would be helpful to explain those.

To what extent could the three challenges be solved by assuming that the child has substantial innate knowledge? In other words, could the challenges be solved by assuming that the child does not, in fact, have to learn about each of the phenomena, and instead has the relevant knowledge ‘built in’? The typical assumption is that if property X is innate, then it should be both universal across languages, and should not need to be learned.

Or could any of the challenges be solved by assuming that learners have a very powerful distributional learning mechanism, i.e., a mechanism that keeps a detailed count of things that do and don’t occur in the input? In that case, what information in the input would the child need to keep track of in order to successfully learn [be specific], and how plausible do you think it is that such experience is reliably available to the learner? Relevant input could consist of individual strings, collections of strings, sentence-situation pairings, or whatever you think might work. 

For purposes of this assignment you are free to assume as much specific, innate knowledge as you wish, and you can also assume a highly powerful distributional learning mechanism. You could give your learner arbitrarily good memory or computational abilities – no limits. But you can’t change the facts of the target language. You should feel free to comment on the plausibility of your assumptions, but it’s more important to consider how the learning problems could in principle be solved. First find some solution, then worry later about its plausibility.

For this assignment, you should pay attention to detail as much as possible. In particular, be explicit about (i) what the learner’s possible hypotheses could be, and (ii) what evidence – linguistic, situational, or some combination – could help the learner to arrive at the appropriate conclusion. Could the learner figure things out based on individual examples in the input? If so, say what those examples are. Or does the learner need to combine information from multiple examples, i.e., tracking frequencies, or tracking the possibility of different types of sentences? Could the problem be solved by just assuming detailed innate knowledge, or is there a minimum that absolutely must be learned, because it is not universal in all languages?

Assignment #2

Due Friday March 11th.

In this lab you will design materials for an experiment on child sentence comprehension. The goal is to try to construct a fair test of preschool-age children’s knowledge of constraints on question formation. The rationale for this is: (i) it serves as a model for a wide range of possible tests of adult and child learner’s linguistic abilities — the experiment design considerations that are relevant here are relevant to many other studies that you might construct; (ii) there may be good reasons to doubt the conclusions that have been drawn from previous studies on this topic, so if we can find a better design, then we can try to actually run the experiment.
English, like many other languages, allows wh-questions in which the wh-phrase and the verb that it is interpreted with are separated by one or more clauses. This is shown in (1-2) for questions involving adjunct/modifier wh-words like howwhen, or where.

1. How did John hurt his leg __?

2a. How did Mary hear that John hurt his leg __?
b. When did Bill say that Susie will arrive __?
c. Where did Emily tell somebody that she found the book __?

But there are restrictions on these long-distance questions. In particular, it is impossible in English (and in the vast majority of other languages) to form a direct wh-question in which the questioned phrase is associated with a verb/gap inside a relative clause. (3a) can be understood as a question about the location of the main clause event (‘talk to’) but not as a question about the location of the relative clause event (‘swim’). (3b) can be understood as a question about the location of the main clause event (‘drink the milk’) but not as a question about the location of the relative clause event (‘sneeze’). For this reason relative clauses are known as ‘islands’ for question formation, i.e., the wh-word cannot escape from the relative clause.

3a. *Where did Emily talk to [the girl that likes to swim __] b. *How did [the boy that sneezed __] drink the milk?

De Villiers & Roeper (1995) argued, using a ‘Question after Story’ task and sentences like (3b) that preschool-age children systematically avoid interpretations of questions that would amount to extractions from a relative clause, i.e., they answer questions like (3b) as if they are questions about the manner of milk drinking. They argue that this avoidance is caused by children’s knowledge of a grammatical island constraint. However, as we have discussed in class, the design of the task could instead have caused the children to avoid the relative clause construal of the question because that question was not suitably licensed by the story context. This is what we hope to fix in this lab.

Your task: propose a design for a study that could provide a fair test of whether preschool-age children allow or disallow interpretations of wh-questions that involve extraction from a relative clause.

In order to do this, you will need to do the following:

(i) For one or more sample sentences, give a list of the circumstances that would need to hold in order for it to be natural to ask a question about the main clause event in a sentence that contains a relative clause.

(ii) For the same sample sentence(s), give a list of the circumstances that would need to hold in order for it to be natural to ask a question about the relative clause event.

(iii) In light of your answers to (i-ii), explain which of your requirements the de Villiers & Roeper (1995) sample story does and does not satisfy.

(iv) Next try to combine your conditions from (i) and (ii) to give a list of requirements that must be met in a scenario that simultaneously licenses a main clause and relative clause question. Can this set of requirements be satisfied in a single scenario, or do they contain contradictory requirements? Clearly explaining your reasoning is particularly important on this point.

(v) Now use your conclusions from (i-iv) to design a new study that tests whether children can interpret wh-questions as involving extraction from a relative clause. Provide sample materials for at least one sample story for each experimental condition (text is fine, no need for pictures or movies!) What experimental conditions would you want to include as controls? For example, is there a way of testing whether the island-violating meaning is suitably prominent/accessible in your context, independent of the island constraint? 

Using other studies as a guide, provide information on how many items you would want. Would you include filler trials – if so, why? Would you want to use a within-subjects design (all children see all conditions) or a between-subjects design (different groups of children tested in the different conditions)? Why? 

Some important notes:

a. There is no preconceived notion of what you will conclude in this lab. This is new research. As usual, we encourage you to work together on this; just write up your work yourself. 

b. Please do not just come up with a story and “see if it works”. It is really important to approach this task systematically, first focusing on the requirements that suitable stories must meet, and then trying to build a real story around those requirements. Similarly, in your write-up, do not just give a sample story without explanation. It would be much better if you could give an annotated story, which explains how the various story elements satisfy your requirements. For example, present the story in a two-column format, in which one column contains the story elements, and the second contains notes on what those elements achieve.

c. The specific choice of lexical items and wh-words is up to you. You are certainly not tied to using the wh-word how as de Villiers and Roeper (1995) did, nor are you tied to using predicates like ‘sneeze’ or ‘drink the milk’. Use whatever you think will make it easier to construct suitable narratives.

d. For purposes of this lab exercise, you can first assume that children are in unlimited supply, and that their attention span is infinite. But it may be worthwhile to address the question of whether your design is feasible given children’s attention span. It is rare for tasks of this kind to last for more than around 15-20 minutes.

e. We will discuss in class the conditions under which it is natural to ask a question about a relative clause. Notes on this will be added below.

f. The Question-after-Story (QaS) task that de Villiers and Roeper used has a different name than the Truth Value Judgment Task (TVJT) that is used in many other studies with preschool-age children, but the two tasks follow essentially the same logic. In the QaS task we are interested in which question interpretation a child chooses to answer, and we use that to try to draw inferences about the child’s grammar of questions. In the TVJT we are interested in which interpretation of a declarative statement a child chooses to judge as true or false, and we use that to try to draw inferences about the child’s grammar of declaratives. Therefore, we should be mindful of the same design considerations that go into a TVJT when designing a QaS task. For ideas on this see Conroy et al. (2009) and Crain & Thornton (1998) [ch 25ch 26ch 27] on pronoun interpretation, and Lidz & Musolino (2006) on quantifier scope interpretation.

Coming soon …


Architectural Issues

Lewis, S. & Phillips, C. 2015. Aligning grammatical theories and language processing modelsJournal of Psycholinguistic Research, 44, 27-46.

Marr, D. (1982). Vision. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [excerpt]

Learning Problems

Chomsky, N. 1975. Reflections on Language. NY: Praeger. (chapter 1)

Goro, T. 2007. Language specific constraints on scope interpretation in first language acquisition. PhD dissertation, U of Maryland.

Han, C., Musolino, J., & Lidz, J. 2016. Endogenous sources of variation in language acquisitionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 942-947.

Roberts, I. & Holmberg, A. 2005. On the role of parameters in Universal Grammar: a reply to Newmeyer.

Newmeyer, F. 2005. Against a parameter setting approach to typological variation. Linguistic Variation Yearbook, 4, 181-234.

Pearl, L. & Sprouse, J. 2013. Syntactic islands and learning biases: Combining experimental syntax and computational modeling to investigate the learning problem. Language Acquisition, 20, 23-68.

Pinker, S. 1989. Learnability and Cognition. MIT Press. (chapter 1)

Real-time Processes

Phillips, C., & Ehrenhofer, L. (2015). The role of language processing in language acquisition. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 5, 409-453.

Staub, A., White, S., Drieghe, D., Hollway, E., & Rayner, K. (2010). Distributional effects of word frequency on eye fixation durations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 36, 1280-1293.