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


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)


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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Xiang, Ming; Dillon, Brian; Phillips, Colin: Illusory licensing effects across dependency types: ERP evidence. In: Brain and Language, vol. 108, no. 1, pp. 40–55, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Aoshima, Sachiko; Yoshida, Masaya; Phillips, Colin: Incremental processing of coreference and binding in Japanese. In: Syntax, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 93–134, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Wagers, Matthew W; Phillips, Colin: Multiple dependencies and the role of the grammar in real-time comprehension. In: Journal of Linguistics, vol. 45, no. 02, pp. 395–433, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Hsu, Chun-chieh Natalie; Hurewitz, Felicia; Phillips, Colin: Context influences structure generation: evidence from Chinese. 2009, (submitted for publication). (Type: Unpublished | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Stroud, Clare: Structural and semantic selectivity in the electrophysiology of sentence comprehension. University of Maryland, 2008. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Wagers, Matthew: The structure of memory meets memory for structure in linguistic cognition. University of Maryland, 2008. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lau, Ellen F; Phillips, Colin; Poeppel, David: A cortical network for semantics:(de) constructing the N400. In: Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 9, no. 12, pp. 920–933, 2008. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lau, Ellen F; Rozanova, Katya; Phillips, Colin: Syntactic prediction and lexical surface frequency effects in sentence processing. In: University of Maryland Working Papers in Linguistics, vol. 16, pp. 163–200, 2008. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina; Lau, Ellen F; Lieberman, Moti; Yoshida, Masaya; Phillips, Colin: The effect of syntactic constraints on the processing of backwards anaphora. In: Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 384–409, 2007. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Wagers, Matthew: Relating structure and time in linguistics and psycholinguistics. In: Oxford handbook of psycholinguistics, pp. 739–756, Oxford University Press, 2007. (Type: Incollection | Links | BibTeX)
Nevins, Andrew; Dillon, Brian; Malhotra, Shiti; Phillips, Colin: The role of feature-number and feature-type in processing Hindi verb agreement violations. In: Brain Research, vol. 1164, pp. 81–94, 2007. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Pablos, Leticia: Preverbal structure building in Romance languages and Basque. University of Maryland, 2006. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Yoshida, Masaya: Constraints and mechanisms in long-distance dependency formation. University of Maryland, 2006. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lieberman, Moti; Aoshima, Sachiko; Phillips, Colin: Nativelike biases in generation of wh-questions by nonnative speakers of Japanese. In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition, vol. 28, pp. 423-448, 2006. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: The real-time status of island phenomena. In: Language, pp. 795–823, 2006. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Ono, Hajime; Yoshida, Masaya; Aoshima, Sachiko; Phillips, Colin: Real-time computation of Japanese exclamatives and the strength of locality biases in sentence comprehension. In: Cognitive Studies, vol. 13, no. 3, 2006. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina: The acquisition and processing of backwards anaphora. University of Maryland, 2005. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Kazanina, Nina; Abada, Shani H: ERP effects of the processing of syntactic long-distance dependencies. In: Cognitive Brain Research, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 407–428, 2005. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Electrophysiology in the study of developmental language impairments: Prospects and challenges for a top-down approach. In: Applied Psycholinguistics, vol. 26, no. 01, pp. 79–96, 2005. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Linguistics and linking problems. In: Rice, Mabel; Warren, Steven (Ed.): Developmental Language Disorders: From Phenotypes to Etiologies, pp. 241-287, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 2004. (Type: Incollection | Links | BibTeX)
Aoshima, Sachiko; Phillips, Colin; Weinberg, Amy: Processing filler-gap dependencies in a head-final language. In: Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 51, no. 1, pp. 23–54, 2004. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Lau, Ellen: Foundational issues. In: Journal of Linguistics, vol. 40, no. 03, pp. 571–591, 2004. (Type: Journal Article | Links | BibTeX)
Aoshima, Sachiko: The grammar and parsing of wh-dependencies. University of Maryland, 2003. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Aoshima, Sachiko; Phillips, Colin; Weinberg, Amy: Processing of Japanese wh-scrambling constructions. In: McClure, William (Ed.): Japanese/Korean Linguistics, pp. 179–191, CSLI Publications, Stanford, CA, 2003. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Aoshima, Sachiko; Phillips, Colin; Weinberg, Amy: Theoretical implications of the parsing of Japanese wh-scrambling constructions. In: Garding, Gina; Tsujimura, Mimu (Ed.): WCCFL22: Proceedings of the 22nd West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, pp. 29-42, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 2003. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Parsing: Psycholinguistic aspects. In: International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Oxford University Press, 2003. (Type: Incollection | Links | BibTeX)
Aoshima, Sachiko; Phillips, Colin; Weinberg, Amy: Active filler effects and reanalysis: A study of Japanese Wh-scrambling constructions. In: vol. 12, pp. 1–24, 2002. (Type: Book Chapter | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Schneider, David; Phillips, Colin: Grammatical search and reanalysis. In: Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 308-336, 2001. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Schneider, David: Parsing and incrementality. University of Delaware, 1999. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Gibson, Edward: On the strength of the local attachment preference. In: Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 323–346, 1997. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Order and structure. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Right association in parsing and grammar. In: Schütze, Carson; Ganger, Jennifer; Broihier, Keven (Ed.): vol. Papers on Language Acquisition and Proce, pp. 37–93, Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, vol. 26, 1995. (Type: Book Chapter | Links | BibTeX)
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