Parallel processing and sentence comprehension difficulty

Marisa Ferrara Boston, John T. Hale, Shravan Vasishth, Reinhold Kliegl

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Eye fixation durations during normal reading correlate with processing difficulty but the specific cognitive mechanisms reflected in these measures are not well understood. This study finds support in German readers' eye fixations for two distinct difficulty metrics: surprisal, which reflects the change in probabilities across syntactic analyses as new words are integrated, and retrieval, which quantifies comprehension difficulty in terms of working memory constraints. We examine the predictions of both metrics using a family of dependency parsers indexed by an upper limit on the number of candidate syntactic analyses they retain at successive words. Surprisal models all fixation measures and regression probability. By contrast, retrieval does not model any measure in serial processing. As more candidate analyses are considered in parallel at each word, retrieval can account for the same measures as surprisal. This pattern suggests an important role for ranked parallelism in theories of sentence comprehension.

DOI: 10.1080/01690965.2010.492228

Boston, M.F., Hale, J.T., Vasishth, S. and Kliegl, R. (2011). Parallelism and syntactic processes in reading difficulty. Language and Cognitive Processes, 26, 301-349