Predicting While Comprehending Language: A Theory and Review

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Abstract

Researchers agree that comprehenders regularly predict upcoming language, but they do not always agree on what prediction is (and how to differentiate it from integration) or what constitutes evidence for it. After defining prediction, we show that it occurs at all linguistic levels from semantics to form, and then propose a theory of which mechanisms comprehenders use to predict. We argue that they most effectively predict using their production system (i.e., prediction-by-production): They covertly imitate the linguistic form of the speaker’s utterance and construct a representation of the underlying communicative intention. Comprehenders can then run this intention through their own production system to prepare the predicted utterance. But doing so takes time and resources, and comprehenders vary in the extent of preparation, with many groups of comprehenders (non-native speakers, illiterates, children, and older adults) using it less than typical native young adults. We thus argue that prediction-by-production is an optional mechanism, which is augmented by mechanisms based on association. Support for our proposal comes from many areas of research (electrophysiological, eye-tracking, and behavioral studies of reading, spoken language processing in the context of visual environments, speech processing, and dialogue).

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