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Predictability and Novelty in Literal Language Comprehension: An ERP Study

Linguists have suggested one mechanism for the creative extension of meaning in language involves mapping, or constructing correspondences between conceptual domains. For example, the sentence, “The clever boys used a cardboard box as a boat,” sets up a novel mapping between the concepts cardboard box and boat, while “His main method of transportation is a boat,” relies on a more conventional mapping between method of transportation and boat. To examine the electrophysiological signature of this mapping process, electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded from the scalp as healthy adults read three sorts of sentences: low-cloze (unpredictable) conventional (“His main method of transportation is a boat,”), low-cloze novel mapping (“The clever boys used a cardboard box as a boat,”), and high-cloze (predictable) conventional (“The only way to get around Venice is to navigate the canals in a boat,”). Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were time-locked to sentence final words. The novel and conventional conditions were matched for cloze probability (a measure of predictability based on the sentence context), lexical association between the sentence frame and the final word (using latent semantic analysis), and other factors known to influence ERPs to language stimuli. The high-cloze conventional control condition was included to compare the effects of mapping conventionality to those of predictability. The N400 component of the ERPs was affected by predictability but not by conventionality. By contrast, a late positivity was affected both by the predictability of sentence final words, being larger for words in low-cloze contexts that made target words difficult to predict, and by novelty, as words in the novel condition elicited a larger positivity 700–900 ms than the same words in the (cloze-matched) conventional condition.

from Brain Research

Hemispheric processing of sarcastic text

Recent evidence suggests that certain types of figurative language, such as conventional metaphors or idioms, may have a left hemisphere processing advantage or are processed similarly in both hemispheres. Sarcasm, however, is likely processed differently than other types of figurative language in the hemispheres because readers often need to construct a novel interpretation of sarcastic text to successfully understand the text’s sarcastic meaning. To investigate how the hemispheres process sarcasm during text comprehension, participants in the current study read sarcastic, literal, and neutral texts and made lexical decisions to related target words presented to either the left visual field-right hemisphere or the right visual field-left hemisphere. Facilitation for sarcastic texts was greater in the right hemisphere than the left hemisphere. In addition, facilitation was greater for literal texts than sarcastic texts in the left hemisphere. These findings suggest that the right hemisphere may play a unique role when readers encounter sarcasm during text comprehension.

from the Journal of Neurolinguistics

The Effects of Input-Based Practice on Pragmatic Development of Requests in L2 Chinese

This study examined the effects of input-based practice on developing accurate and speedy requests in second-language Chinese. Thirty learners from intermediate-level Chinese classes were assigned to an intensive training group (IT), a regular training group (RT), and a control group. The IT and the RT groups practiced using four Chinese request-making forms via computerized structured input activities over 2 consecutive days. During this time, the IT group practiced using the request-making forms twice as much as the RT group. The control group did not practice. The results show that the input-based practice was effective in promoting accuracy in an Oral Discourse Completion Task and in enhancing speed in a Pragmatic Listening Judgment Task. No other effects of practice were observed.

from Language Learning

Severe Traumatic Brain Injury, Frontal Lesions, and Social Aspects of Language Use: A Study of French-Speaking Adults

The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the social (pragmatic) aspects of language use by French-speaking individuals with frontal lesions following a severe traumatic brain injury. Eleven participants with traumatic brain injury performed tasks in three areas of communication: production (interview situation), comprehension (direct requests, conventional indirect requests, and hints), and metapragmatic knowledge. The results of the patients pointed out some strengths (turn-taking in production, and request comprehension, including hints and the speaker’s intention) and some weaknesses (topic maintenance in production and metapragmatic knowledge). The patients’ good comprehension of requests and their difficulty expressing metapragmatic knowledge suggests that they differ from controls in how they “explain the world”: their knowledge of the event sequence was not based on verbally expressible knowledge about the relationship between the structural characteristics of a request utterance and those of its social production context. The pragmatic skills of persons with traumatic brain injury seem to vary across tasks: these individuals have specific strengths and weaknesses in different domains. In addition, marked interindividual differences were noted among the patients: three of them had only one weak point, topic maintenance. These interindividual differences were not systematically linked to performance on executive function tests, but lesion unilaterality (right or left) seems to help preserve patients’ pragmatic and metapragmatic skills. The discussion stresses the need to take each patient’s strengths and weaknesses into account in designing remediation programs.

from the Journal of Communication Disorders

Logic and conversation revisited: evidence for a division between semantic and pragmatic content in real-time language comprehension

The distinction between semantics (linguistically encoded meaning) and pragmatics (inferences about communicative intentions) can often be unclear and counterintuitive. For example, linguistic theories argue that the meaning of some encompasses the meaning of all while the intuition that some implies not all results from an inference. We explored how online interpretation of some evolves using an eye-tracking while listening paradigm. Early eye-movements indicated that while some was initially interpreted as compatible with all, participants began excluding referents compatible with all approximately 800 ms later. These results contrast with recent evidence of immediate inferencing and highlight the presence of bottom-up semantic-pragmatic interactions which necessarily rely on initial access to lexical meanings to trigger inferences.

from Language and Cognitive Processes

Mutual exclusivity in autism spectrum disorders: Testing the pragmatic hypothesis

While there is ample evidence that children treat words as mutually exclusive, the cognitive basis of this bias is widely debated. We focus on the distinction between pragmatic and lexical constraints accounts. High-functioning children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) offer a unique perspective on this debate, as they acquire substantial vocabularies despite impoverished social-pragmatic skills. We tested children and adolescents with ASD in a paradigm examining mutual exclusivity for words and facts. Words were interpreted contrastively more often than facts. Word performance was associated with vocabulary size; fact performance was associated with social-communication skills. Thus mutual exclusivity does not appear to be driven by pragmatics, suggesting that it is either a lexical constraint or a reflection of domain-general learning processes.

from Cognition

Are children with Specific Language Impairment competent with the pragmatics and logic of quantification?

Children with SLI performed more poorly than a group of age-matched typically-developing peers, and both groups performed more poorly with pragmatics than with logical meaning. Moreover, children with SLI were disproportionately challenged by pragmatic meaning compared to their age-matched peers. However, the performance of children with SLI was comparable to that of a group of younger language-matched typically-developing children. The findings document that children with SLI do face difficulties with employing the maxim of informativeness, as well as with understanding the logical meaning of quantifiers, but also that these difficulties are in keeping with their overall language difficulties rather than exceeding them. The implications of these findings for SLI, linguistic theory, and clinical practice are discussed.

from Cognition

Listeners’ comprehension of uptalk in spontaneous speech

Listeners’ comprehension of phrase final rising pitch on declarative utterances, or uptalk, was examined to test the hypothesis that prolongations might differentiate conflicting functions of rising pitch. In Experiment 1 we found that listeners rated prolongations as indicating more speaker uncertainty, but that rising pitch was unrelated to ratings. In Experiment 2 we found that prolongations interacted with rising pitch when listeners monitored for words in the subsequent utterance. Words preceded by prolonged uptalk were monitored faster than words preceded by non-prolonged uptalk. In Experiment 3 we found that the interaction between rising pitch and prolongations depended on listeners’ beliefs about speakers’ mental states. Results support the theory that temporal and situational context are important in determining intonational meaning.

from Cognition

What’s in a voice? Prosody as a test case for the Theory of Mind account of autism

The human voice conveys a variety of information about people’s feelings, emotions and mental states. Some of this information relies on sophisticated Theory of Mind (ToM) skills, while others are more simple and do not require ToM. This variety provides an interesting test case for the ToM account of autism, which would predict greater impairment as ToM requirements increase. In this paper, we draw on psychological and pragmatic theories to classify vocal cues according to the amount of mindreading required to identify them. Children with a high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder and matched controls were tested in three experiments where the speakers’ state had to be extracted from their vocalizations. Although our results confirm that people with autism have subtle difficulties dealing with vocal cues, they show a pattern of performance that is inconsistent with the view that atypical recognition of vocal cues is caused by impaired ToM.

from Neuropsychologia

The potential contribution of communication breakdown and repair in phonological intervention

This paper explores the potential contribution of communication breakdown and repair sequences in phonological intervention. The paper is divided into two parts. In part one, we examine the inclusion of communication breakdown and repair sequences across three current approaches to phonological intervention. The review of this literature highlights a need for researchers to better document the teaching dialogue used in therapy. In part two of this paper, we consider how a unique type of clarification request containing an incorrect production could be applied in an intervention context. Reasons why such a unique counterintuitive clarification request might help children’s speech are considered. The need to better understand the effect of different types of clarification requests on children’s speech production skills during phonological intervention is discussed.

from the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology http://www.scopus.com/record/display.url?eid=2-s2.0-78149338956&origin=inward&txGid=UsooD3QpokwpawpCzXg7KDx%3a2

Pragmatic Language and School Related Linguistic Abilities in Siblings of Children with Autism

Siblings of probands with autism spectrum disorders are at higher risk for developing the broad autism phenotype (BAP). We compared the linguistic abilities (i.e., pragmatic language, school achievements, and underling reading processes) of 35 school-age siblings of children with autism (SIBS-A) to those of 42 siblings of children with typical development. Results indicated lower pragmatic abilities in a subgroup of SIBS-A identified with BAP related difficulties (SIBS-A-BAP) whereas school achievements and reading processes were intact. Furthermore, among SIBS-A-BAP, significant negative correlations emerged between the severity scores on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and full and verbal IQ scores. These results are discussed in the context of the developmental trajectories of SIBS-A and in relation to the BAP.<p><p>from the <a href=”http://www.springerlink.com/content/ll18u2wt078m6257/”><em>Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders</em></a></p>

Theory of mind and language comprehension in schizophrenia: Poor mindreading affects figurative language comprehension beyond intelligence deficits

Patients suffering from schizophrenia have been found to be impaired in their pragmatic abilities in the comprehension of figurative language (e.g., metaphors, ironies, proverbs). Impairments in theory of mind (ToM; that is, the ability to attribute/infer mental states) have been proposed to be underlying high level language understanding. Even though ToM has been shown to be defective in schizophrenia, there is little information about the pattern of relations between ToM and language comprehension (LC) abilities. Our aim in this study is to explore how deficits in ToM concern the LC capacity in schizophrenia when general intelligence is controlled for. A total of 22 Spanish-speaking inpatients and 22 healthy controls matched in age, sex, education and language dominance were assessed using 3 ToM tasks and 6 LC tasks (covering lexical, syntactic, and semantic–pragmatic language processing levels) in order to establish to what extent ToM gets associated with LC abilities. Correlational analysis showed a connection between impairments in ToM and difficulties in LC. A discriminant function analysis showed that the variables that best discriminate between patients and controls are those corresponding to ToM-critical items and figurative LC tasks. Impairments in ToM seem to be mainly associated to LC in the semantic–pragmatic processing level and this association appears to be genuine, non dependent on IQ. In schizophrenia, mindreading impairments contribute negatively to the process of understanding figurative meanings beyond the presence of an impoverished intelligence.

from the Journal of Neurolinguistics

Comprehension of the Communicative Intent Behind Pointing and Gazing Gestures by Young Children with Williams Syndrome or Down Syndrome

Conclusions: At the group level, preschoolers with WS or DS were able to comprehend the communicative intent expressed by pointing and gazing gestures in a tabletop task. Children with DS evidenced significantly stronger pragmatic skills than did children with WS, providing further evidence that children with WS have more difficulty with sociocommunication than expected for chronological age or cognitive/language ability.

from the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research

Measuring Pragmatic Language in Speakers With Autism Spectrum Disorders: Comparing the Children’s Communication Checklist—2 and the Test of Pragmatic Language

Conclusions: In these children with ASD, who displayed age-appropriate structural language skills, the CCC–2 identified pragmatic language impairment better than the TOPL. Clinically, this can be useful in documenting the presence of language dysfunction when traditional standardized language assessments would not reveal communication problems.

from American Journal of Speech Language Pathology

On the incrementality of pragmatic processing: An ERP investigation of informativeness and pragmatic abilities

In two event-related potential (ERP) experiments, we determined to what extent Grice’s maxim of informativeness as well as pragmatic ability contributes to the incremental build-up of sentence meaning, by examining the impact of underinformative versus informative scalar statements (e.g. “Some people have lungs/pets, and…”) on the N400 event-related potential (ERP), an electrophysiological index of semantic processing. In Experiment 1, only pragmatically skilled participants (as indexed by the Autism Quotient Communication subscale) showed a larger N400 to underinformative statements. In Experiment 2, this effect disappeared when the critical words were unfocused so that the local underinformativeness went unnoticed (e.g., “Some people have lungs that…”). Our results suggest that, while pragmatic scalar meaning can incrementally contribute to sentence comprehension, this contribution is dependent on contextual factors, whether these are derived from individual pragmatic abilities or the overall experimental context.

from the Journal of Memory and Language