Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Good-enough representations in language comprehension.

Ferreira, F., Bailey, K.G.D., & Ferraro, V. (2002). Good-enough representations in language comprehension. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 11-15.

How do we generate the meaning of a sentence beyond just knowing what each individual word means? One source of information to help us understand a sentence comes from our knowledge of syntax, or the linguistic rules we know for how words go together. Another source of information comes from our ability to problem-solve, learn or discover information based on our past experience and present context, also known as a heuristic process. Although not as detailed and specific as linguistic rules, heuristics can be applied very rapidly. The application of heuristics can allow for the quick creation of a ‘good enough’ representation of a sentence, which could result in misinterpretations in some cases.

The authors reviewed two sources of evidence to support their idea that initial processing of sentences is ‘good enough’. In one study, participants were shown ‘garden-path sentences’, that is, sentences in which the most likely grammatical interpretation suggested by the first words of the sentence turns out to be wrong. The assumption has been that when readers become aware of the difficulty understanding, they re-interpret the sentence coming to a full and complete representation of the sentence. The results of the reported study, however, indicated that even though participants were able to indicate their understanding of the key confusion after reviewing the garden-path sentence, they persisted in misunderstanding another aspect of the sentence. The authors suggested that the processing of the sentences was ‘good enough’ to allow comprehension of the main idea required for the context but did not reflect the true content of the sentence. In another study, participants were asked to judge the possible truth of active sentences like ‘The man bit the dog’ and passive sentences like ‘The dog was bitten by the man’.  More errors were made on the passive sentences especially when the word order was unexpected. The authors argued that the linguistic representation of passive sentences was fragile, and was often outweighed by the heuristics favouring the error response.

The authors suggested that ‘good enough’ language processing is often successful because the context of the sentence or the conversation supports the linguistic interpretation generated. In cases where the context or heuristics are unclear or unknown, however, individuals with weak linguistic representations such as children with language impairment may fail to comprehend the sentence.

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