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1.  Musical Expertise Modulates Early Processing of Syntactic Violations in Language 
Syntactic violations in speech and music have been shown to elicit an anterior negativity (AN) as early as 100 ms after violation onset and a posterior positivity that peaks at roughly 600 ms (P600/LPC). The language AN is typically reported as left-lateralized (LAN), whereas the music AN is typically reported as right-lateralized (RAN). However, several lines of evidence suggest syntactic processing of language and music rely on overlapping neural systems. The current study tested the hypothesis that syntactic processing of speech and music share neural resources by examining whether musical proficiency modulates ERP indices of linguistic syntactic processing. ERPs were measured in response to syntactic violations in sentences and chord progressions in musicians and non-musicians. Violations in speech were insertion errors in normal and semantically impoverished English sentences. Violations in music were out-of-key chord substitutions from distantly and closely related keys. Phrase-structure violations elicited an AN and P600 in both groups. Harmonic violations elicited an LPC in both groups, blatant harmonic violations also elicited a RAN in musicians only. Cross-domain effects of musical proficiency were similar to previously reported within-domain effects of linguistic proficiency on the distribution of the language AN; syntactic violations in normal English sentences elicited a LAN in musicians and a bilateral AN in non-musicians. The late positivities elicited by violations differed in latency and distribution between domains. These results suggest that initial processing of syntactic violations in language and music relies on shared neural resources in the general population, and that musical expertise results in more specialized cortical organization of syntactic processing in both domains.
PMCID: PMC3542524  PMID: 23335905
expertise; syntax; music; language; sentence processing; ERAN; LAN; P600
2.  Neurodevelopment for syntactic processing distinguishes childhood stuttering recovery versus persistence 
Characterized by the presence of involuntary speech disfluencies, developmental stuttering is a neurodevelopmental disorder of atypical speech-motor coordination. Although the etiology of stuttering is multifactorial, language development during early childhood may influence both the onset of the disorder and the likelihood of recovery. The purpose of this study was to determine whether differences in neural indices mediating language processing are associated with persistence or recovery in school-age children who stutter.
Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were obtained from 31 6–7-year-olds, including nine children who do not stutter (CWNS), 11 children who had recovered from stuttering (CWS-Rec), and 11 children who persisted in stuttering (CWS-Per), matched for age, and all with similar socioeconomic status, nonverbal intelligence, and language ability. We examined ERPs elicited by semantic and syntactic (phrase structure) violations within an auditory narrative consisting of English and Jabberwocky sentences. In Jabberwocky sentences, content words were replaced with pseudowords to limit semantic context. A mixed effects repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was computed for ERP components with four within-subject factors, including condition, hemisphere, anterior/posterior distribution, and laterality.
During the comprehension of English sentences, ERP activity mediating semantic and syntactic (phrase structure) processing did not distinguish CWS-Per, CWS-Rec, and CWNS. Semantic violations elicited a qualitatively similar N400 component across groups. Phrase structure violations within English sentences also elicited a similar P600 component in all groups. However, identical phrase structure violations within Jabberwocky sentences elicited a P600 in CWNS and CWS-Rec, but an N400-like effect in CWS-Per.
The distinguishing neural patterns mediating syntactic, but not semantic, processing provide evidence that specific brain functions for some aspects of language processing may be associated with stuttering persistence. Unlike CWS-Rec and CWNS, the lack of semantic context in Jabberwocky sentences seemed to affect the syntactic processing strategies of CWS-Per, resulting in the elicitation of semantically based N400-like activity during syntactic (phrase structure) violations. This vulnerability suggests neural mechanisms associated with the processing of syntactic structure may be less mature in 6–7-year-old children whose stuttering persisted compared to their fluent or recovered peers.
PMCID: PMC4318174  PMID: 25657823
Stuttering; Event-related potentials; Language processing; Language development; N400; P600; Children
3.  An ERP Study of Syntactic Processing in English and Nonsense Sentences 
Brain research  2006;1130(1):167-180.
The timecourse of the interaction between syntactic and semantic information during sentence processing in monolingual native English speakers was investigated using event-related potentials (ERPs). To examine the effects of semantic information on syntactic processing, the results for normal English sentences were compared to those for semantically impoverished nonsense (Jabberwocky) sentences. Within each sentence type condition, half of the sentences contained a syntactic violation. Violations elicited a larger amplitude N1 and more negative ERPs around 200 ms after the onset of the critical word relative to the grammatical condition. Although these effects were observed in both sentence types, they were anteriorly distributed for English sentences only. Moreover, the P600 elicited by the syntactic violation was attenuated in processing Jabberwocky as compared to English sentences. These results suggest that semantic and syntactic information are integrated during the earlier stages of syntactic processing indexed by the anterior negativities, and that these interactions continue in the later stages of processing indexed by the P600.
PMCID: PMC1868703  PMID: 17173867
language; sentence processing; syntax; semantic information; ERP
4.  Maturational Constraints on the Recruitment of Early Processes for Syntactic Processing 
Journal of cognitive neuroscience  2010;23(10):2752-2765.
An enduring question in the study of second language acquisition concerns the relative contributions of age of acquisition (AOA) and ultimate linguistic proficiency to neural organization for second language processing. Several event-related potential (ERP) and neuroimaging studies of second language learners have found that neural organization for syntactic processing is sensitive to delays in second language acquisition. However, such delays in second language acquisition are typically associated with lower language proficiency, rendering it difficult to assess whether differences in AOA or proficiency lead to these effects. Here we examined the effects of delayed second language acquisition while controlling for proficiency differences by examining participants who differ in AOA but who were matched for proficiency in the same language. We compared the ERP response to auditory English phrase structure violations in a group of late learners of English matched for grammatical proficiency with a group of English native speakers. In the native speaker group violations elicited a bilateral and prolonged anterior negativity, with onset at 100 ms, followed by a posterior positivity (P600). In contrast, in the non-native speaker group violations did not elicit the early anterior negativity, but did elicit a P600 which was more widespread spatially and temporally than that of the native speaker group. These results suggest that neural organization for syntactic processing is sensitive to delays in language acquisition independently of proficiency level. More specifically they suggest that both early and later syntactic processes are sensitive to maturational constraints. These results also suggest that late learners who reach a high level of second language proficiency rely on different neural mechanisms than native speakers of that language.
PMCID: PMC3154972  PMID: 20964590
5.  Re-Examination of Chinese Semantic Processing and Syntactic Processing: Evidence from Conventional ERPs and Reconstructed ERPs by Residue Iteration Decomposition (RIDE) 
PLoS ONE  2015;10(1):e0117324.
A number of studies have explored the time course of Chinese semantic and syntactic processing. However, whether syntactic processing occurs earlier than semantics during Chinese sentence reading is still under debate. To further explore this issue, an event-related potentials (ERPs) experiment was conducted on 21 native Chinese speakers who read individually-presented Chinese simple sentences (NP1+VP+NP2) word-by-word for comprehension and made semantic plausibility judgments. The transitivity of the verbs was manipulated to form three types of stimuli: congruent sentences (CON), sentences with a semantically violated NP2 following a transitive verb (semantic violation, SEM), and sentences with a semantically violated NP2 following an intransitive verb (combined semantic and syntactic violation, SEM+SYN). The ERPs evoked from the target NP2 were analyzed by using the Residue Iteration Decomposition (RIDE) method to reconstruct the ERP waveform blurred by trial-to-trial variability, as well as by using the conventional ERP method based on stimulus-locked averaging. The conventional ERP analysis showed that, compared with the critical words in CON, those in SEM and SEM+SYN elicited an N400–P600 biphasic pattern. The N400 effects in both violation conditions were of similar size and distribution, but the P600 in SEM+SYN was bigger than that in SEM. Compared with the conventional ERP analysis, RIDE analysis revealed a larger N400 effect and an earlier P600 effect (in the time window of 500–800 ms instead of 570–810ms). Overall, the combination of conventional ERP analysis and the RIDE method for compensating for trial-to-trial variability confirmed the non-significant difference between SEM and SEM+SYN in the earlier N400 time window. Converging with previous findings on other Chinese structures, the current study provides further precise evidence that syntactic processing in Chinese does not occur earlier than semantic processing.
PMCID: PMC4304814  PMID: 25615600
6.  Proficiency Differences in Syntactic Processing of Monolingual Native Speakers Indexed by Event-related Potentials 
Journal of cognitive neuroscience  2010;22(12):2728-2744.
While anecdotally there appear to be differences in the way native speakers use and comprehend their native language, most empirical investigations of language processing study university students and none have studied differences in language proficiency which may be independent of resource limitations such as working memory span. We examined differences in language proficiency in adult monolingual native speakers of English using an event-related potential (ERP) paradigm. ERPs were recorded to insertion phrase structure violations in naturally spoken English sentences. Participants recruited from a wide spectrum of society were given standardized measures of English language proficiency, and two complementary ERP analyses were performed. In between-groups analyses, participants were divided, based on standardized proficiency scores, into Lower Proficiency (LP) and Higher Proficiency (HP) groups. Compared to LP participants, HP participants showed an early anterior negativity that was more focal, both spatially and temporally, and a larger and more widely distributed positivity (P600) to violations. In correlational analyses, we utilized a wide spectrum of proficiency scores to examine the degree to which individual proficiency scores correlated with individual neural responses to syntactic violations in regions and time windows identified in the between-group analyses. This approach also employed partial correlation analyses to control for possible confounding variables. These analyses provided evidence for the effects of proficiency that converged with the between-groups analyses. These results suggest that adult monolingual native speakers of English who vary in language proficiency differ in the recruitment of syntactic processes that are hypothesized to be at least in part automatic as well as of those thought to be more controlled. These results also suggest that in order to fully characterize neural organization for language in native speakers it is necessary to include participants of varying proficiency.
PMCID: PMC2891257  PMID: 19925188
7.  Why Pitch Sensitivity Matters: Event-Related Potential Evidence of Metric and Syntactic Violation Detection Among Spanish Late Learners of German 
Event-related potential (ERP) data in monolingual German speakers have shown that sentential metric expectancy violations elicit a biphasic ERP pattern consisting of an anterior negativity and a posterior positivity (P600). This pattern is comparable to that elicited by syntactic violations. However, proficient French late learners of German do not detect violations of metric expectancy in German. They also show qualitatively and quantitatively different ERP responses to metric and syntactic violations. We followed up the questions whether (1) latter evidence results from a potential pitch cue insensitivity in speech segmentation in French speakers, or (2) if the result is founded in rhythmic language differences. Therefore, we tested Spanish late learners of German, as Spanish, contrary to French, uses pitch as a segmentation cue even though the basic segmentation unit is the same in French and Spanish (i.e., the syllable). We report ERP responses showing that Spanish L2 learners are sensitive to syntactic as well as metric violations in German sentences independent of attention to task in a P600 response. Overall, the behavioral performance resembles that of German native speakers. The current data suggest that Spanish L2 learners are able to extract metric units (trochee) in their L2 (German) even though their basic segmentation unit in Spanish is the syllable. In addition Spanish in contrast to French L2 learners of German are sensitive to syntactic violations indicating a tight link between syntactic and metric competence. This finding emphasizes the relevant role of metric cues not only in L2 prosodic but also in syntactic processing.
PMCID: PMC3120976  PMID: 21734898
auditory language processing; P600; speech segmentation; trochee; L2
8.  Distinguishing Neurocognitive Processes Reflected by P600 Effects: Evidence from ERPs and Neural Oscillations 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(5):e96840.
Research on language comprehension using event-related potentials (ERPs) reported distinct ERP components reliably related to the processing of semantic (N400) and syntactic information (P600). Recent ERP studies have challenged this well-defined distinction by showing P600 effects for semantic and pragmatic anomalies. So far, it is still unresolved whether the P600 reflects specific or rather common processes. The present study addresses this question by investigating ERPs in response to a syntactic and pragmatic (irony) manipulation, as well as a combined syntactic and pragmatic manipulation. For the syntactic condition, a morphosyntactic violation was applied, whereas for the pragmatic condition, such as “That is rich”, either an ironic or literal interpretation was achieved, depending on the prior context. The ERPs at the critical word showed a LAN-P600 pattern for syntactically incorrect sentences relative to correct ones. For ironic compared to literal sentences, ERPs showed a P200 effect followed by a P600 component. In comparison of the syntax-related P600 to the irony-related P600, distributional differences were found. Moreover, for the P600 time window (i.e., 500–900 ms), different changes in theta power between the syntax and pragmatics effects were found, suggesting that different patterns of neural activity contributed to each respective effect. Thus, both late positivities seem to be differently sensitive to these two types of linguistic information, and might reflect distinct neurocognitive processes, such as reanalysis of the sentence structure versus pragmatic reanalysis.
PMCID: PMC4028180  PMID: 24844290
9.  How Is Sentence Processing Affected by External Semantic and Syntactic Information? Evidence from Event-Related Potentials 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(3):e9742.
A crucial question for understanding sentence comprehension is the openness of syntactic and semantic processes for other sources of information. Using event-related potentials in a dual task paradigm, we had previously found that sentence processing takes into consideration task relevant sentence-external semantic but not syntactic information. In that study, internal and external information both varied within the same linguistic domain—either semantic or syntactic. Here we investigated whether across-domain sentence-external information would impact within-sentence processing.
In one condition, adjectives within visually presented sentences of the structure [Det]-[Noun]-[Adjective]-[Verb] were semantically correct or incorrect. Simultaneously with the noun, auditory adjectives were presented that morphosyntactically matched or mismatched the visual adjectives with respect to gender.
As expected, semantic violations within the sentence elicited N400 and P600 components in the ERP. However, these components were not modulated by syntactic matching of the sentence-external auditory adjective. In a second condition, syntactic within-sentence correctness-variations were combined with semantic matching variations between the auditory and the visual adjective. Here, syntactic within-sentence violations elicited a LAN and a P600 that did not interact with semantic matching of the auditory adjective. However, semantic mismatching of the latter elicited a frontocentral positivity, presumably related to an increase in discourse level complexity.
The current findings underscore the open versus algorithmic nature of semantic and syntactic processing, respectively, during sentence comprehension.
PMCID: PMC2840031  PMID: 20305820
10.  ERP evidence for telicity effects on syntactic processing in garden-path sentences 
Brain and language  2008;108(3):145-158.
Verbs contain multifaceted information about both the semantics of an action, and potential argument structures. Linguistic theory classifies verbs according to whether the denoted action has an inherent (telic) end-point (fall, awaken), or whether it is considered homogenous, or atelic (read, worship). The aim of our study was to examine how this distinction influences online sentence processing, investigating the effects of verbal telicity on the ease of syntactic re-analysis of Object reduced relative clauses. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were recorded from 22 English speakers as they read sentences in which the main verb was either telic or atelic, e.g., “The actress awakened/worshippedby the writer left in a hurry”. ERPs elicited by telic and atelic verbs, the preposition “by” introducing the second argument (Agent), and the second argument itself, e.g., “writer”, were compared. Additionally, participants were grouped according to receptive syntactic proficiency: normal (NP) or high (HP). ERPs from the NP group first diverged at the second argument, with the atelic condition eliciting larger amplitude negativity at the N100, and continuing to the P200 interval. In contrast, ERPs from the HP group first diverged earlier in the sentence, on the word “by”. ERPs elicited by “by” in the atelic condition were also characterized by increased negativity, in this case significant at P200 and Anterior Negativity between 320-500ms post stimulus onset. Our results support the postulated conceptual/semantic distinction underlying the two verb categories, and demonstrate that world-knowledge about actions designated by verbs and syntactic proficiency are reflected in on-line processing of sentence structure.
PMCID: PMC2720995  PMID: 18945484
telicity; sentence processing; garden-path; ERPs; anterior negativity
11.  Syntactic Computations in the Language Network: Characterizing Dynamic Network Properties Using Representational Similarity Analysis 
The core human capacity of syntactic analysis involves a left hemisphere network involving left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) and posterior middle temporal gyrus (LMTG) and the anatomical connections between them. Here we use magnetoencephalography (MEG) to determine the spatio-temporal properties of syntactic computations in this network. Listeners heard spoken sentences containing a local syntactic ambiguity (e.g., “… landing planes …”), at the offset of which they heard a disambiguating verb and decided whether it was an acceptable/unacceptable continuation of the sentence. We charted the time-course of processing and resolving syntactic ambiguity by measuring MEG responses from the onset of each word in the ambiguous phrase and the disambiguating word. We used representational similarity analysis (RSA) to characterize syntactic information represented in the LIFG and left posterior middle temporal gyrus (LpMTG) over time and to investigate their relationship to each other. Testing a variety of lexico-syntactic and ambiguity models against the MEG data, our results suggest early lexico-syntactic responses in the LpMTG and later effects of ambiguity in the LIFG, pointing to a clear differentiation in the functional roles of these two regions. Our results suggest the LpMTG represents and transmits lexical information to the LIFG, which responds to and resolves the ambiguity.
PMCID: PMC3656357  PMID: 23730293
syntax; sentence processing; syntactic ambiguity; language networks; magnetoencephalography; representational similarity analysis
12.  The influence of language deprivation in early childhood on L2 processing: An ERP comparison of deaf native signers and deaf signers with a delayed language acquisition 
BMC Neuroscience  2012;13:44.
To examine which language function depends on early experience, the present study compared deaf native signers, deaf non-native signers and hearing German native speakers while processing German sentences. The participants watched simple written sentences while event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded. At the end of each sentence they were asked to judge whether the sentence was correct or not. Two types of violations were introduced in the middle of the sentence: a semantically implausible noun or a violation of subject-verb number agreement.
The results showed a similar ERP pattern after semantic violations (an N400 followed by a positivity) in all three groups. After syntactic violations, native German speakers and native signers of German sign language (DGS) with German as second language (L2) showed a left anterior negativity (LAN) followed by a P600, whereas no LAN but a negativity over the right hemisphere instead was found in deaf participants with a delayed onset of first language (L1) acquisition. The P600 of this group had a smaller amplitude and a different scalp distribution as compared to German native speakers.
The results of the present study suggest that language deprivation in early childhood alters the cerebral organization of syntactic language processing mechanisms for L2. Semantic language processing instead was unaffected.
PMCID: PMC3404011  PMID: 22554360
13.  The online application of binding condition B in native and non-native pronoun resolution 
Previous research has shown that anaphor resolution in a non-native language may be more vulnerable to interference from structurally inappropriate antecedents compared to native anaphor resolution. To test whether previous findings on reflexive anaphors generalize to non-reflexive pronouns, we carried out an eye-movement monitoring study investigating the application of binding condition B during native and non-native sentence processing. In two online reading experiments we examined when during processing local and/or non-local antecedents for pronouns were considered in different types of syntactic environment. Our results demonstrate that both native English speakers and native German-speaking learners of English showed online sensitivity to binding condition B in that they did not consider syntactically inappropriate antecedents. For pronouns thought to be exempt from condition B (so-called “short-distance pronouns”), the native readers showed a weak preference for the local antecedent during processing. The non-native readers, on the other hand, showed a preference for the matrix subject even where local coreference was permitted, and despite demonstrating awareness of short-distance pronouns' referential ambiguity in a complementary offline task. This indicates that non-native comprehenders are less sensitive during processing to structural cues that render pronouns exempt from condition B, and prefer to link a pronoun to a salient subject antecedent instead.
PMCID: PMC3933778  PMID: 24611060
pronoun resolution; binding; sentence processing; eye-movement monitoring; bilingualism; English
14.  Neural correlates of semantic and syntactic processes in the comprehension of case marked pronouns: Evidence from German and Dutch 
BMC Neuroscience  2006;7:23.
It is well known that both semantic and syntactic information play a role in pronoun resolution in sentences. However, it is unclear what the relative contribution of these sources of information is for the establishment of a coreferential relationship between the pronoun and the antecedent in combination with a local structural case constraint on the pronoun (i.e. case assignment of a pronoun under preposition governing). In a prepositional phrase in German and Dutch, it is the preposition that assigns case to the pronoun. Furthermore, in these languages different overtly case-marked pronouns are used to refer to male and female persons. Thus, one can manipulate biological/syntactic gender features separately from case marking features.
The major aim of this study was to determine what the influence of gender information in combination with a local structural case constraint is on the processing of a personal pronoun in a sentence.
Event-related brain potential (ERP) experiments were performed in German and in Dutch. In a word by word sentence reading study in German and Dutch, gender congruency between the antecedent and the pronoun was manipulated and/or case assignment by the preposition was violated while ERPs of young native speakers were recorded.
The German and the Dutch ERP data showed an enlarged negativity broadly distributed starting approximately 350 ms after onset of the pronoun followed by a late positivity for gender violations. For syntactic incongruencies without gender violations only a positivity was present. The Dutch data showed an earlier onset of the positivity in comparison to German.
Finding negativities and positivities for conditions with a gender violation indicates that pronoun resolution with gender incongruency between the pronoun and the antecedent suffers from semantic as well as syntactic integration problems. The presence of a positivity for the syntactically incongruent conditions without gender violations suggests that the processing of incorrect case marking without a gender violation gives rise to syntactic but not semantic integration problems. We suggest that the more prominent case violation in Dutch caused the earlier onset of the positivity in the Dutch study. In addition, the pattern of ERP effects shows that both case and gender information are used almost immediately implying that the local structural constraint affects the resolution process with more processing activity than for a pronoun of which only one source of information is violated or incongruent.
PMCID: PMC1456979  PMID: 16526952
15.  From Mind to Mouth: Event Related Potentials of Sentence Production in Classic Galactosemia 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e52826.
Patients with classic galactosemia, an inborn error of metabolism, have speech and language production impairments. Past research primarily focused on speech (motor) problems, but these cannot solely explain the language impairments. Which specific deficits contribute to the impairments in language production is not yet known. Deficits in semantic and syntactic planning are plausible and require further investigation. In the present study, we examined syntactic encoding while patients and matched controls overtly described scenes of moving objects using either separate words (minimal syntactic planning) or sentences (sentence-level syntactic planning). The design of the paradigm also allowed tapping into local noun phrase- and more global sentence-level syntactic planning. Simultaneously, we recorded event-related potentials (ERPs). The patients needed more time to prepare and finish the utterances and made more errors. The patient ERPs had a very similar morphology to that of healthy controls, indicating overall comparable neural processing. Most importantly, the ERPs diverged from those of controls in several functionally informative time windows, ranging from very early (90–150 ms post scene onset) to relatively late (1820–2020 ms post scene onset). These time windows can be associated with different linguistic encoding stages. The ERP results form the first neuroscientific evidence for language production impairments in patients with galactosemia in lexical and syntactic planning stages, i.e., prior to the linguistic output phase. These findings hence shed new light on the language impairments in this disease.
PMCID: PMC3530491  PMID: 23300788
16.  Processing Coordinate Structures in Chinese: Evidence from Eye Movements 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(4):e35517.
This article reports the results of an eye-tracking experiment that investigated the processing of coordinate structures in Chinese sentence comprehension. The study tracked the eye movements of native Chinese readers as they read sentences consisting of two independent clauses connected by the word huo zhe. The data strongly confirmed readers' preference for an initial noun phrase (NP)-coordination parsing in Chinese coordination structure. When huo zhe was absent from the beginning of a sentence, we identified a cost associated with abandoning the NP-coordination analysis, which was evident with regard to the second NP when the coordination was unambiguous. Otherwise, this cost was evident with regard to the verb, the syntactically disambiguating region, when the coordination was ambiguous. However, the presence of a sentence-initial huo zhe reduced reading times and regressions in the huo zhe NP and the verb regions. We believe that the word huo zhe at the beginning of a sentence helps the reader predict that the sentence contains a parallel structure. Before the corresponding phrases appear, the readers can use the word huo zhe and the language structure thereafter to predicatively construct the syntactic structure. Such predictive capability can eliminate the reader's preference for NP-coordination analysis. Implications for top-down parsing theory and models of initial syntactic analysis and reanalysis are discussed.
PMCID: PMC3338849  PMID: 22558163
17.  Anticipating Explanations in Relative Clause Processing 
Cognition  2011;118(3):339-358.
We show that comprehenders’ expectations about upcoming discourse coherence relations influence the resolution of local structural ambiguity. We employ cases in which two clauses share both a syntactic relationship and a discourse relationship, and hence in which syntactic and discourse processing might be expected to interact. An off-line sentence-completion study and an on-line self-paced reading study examined readers’ expectations for high/low relative clause attachments following implicit-causality and non-implicit-causality verbs (John detests/babysits the children of the musician who…). In the off-line study, the widely reported low-attachment preference for English is observed in the non-implicit causality condition, but this preference gives way to more high attachments in the implicit causality condition in cases in which (i) the verb’s causally implicated referent occupies the high-attachment position and (ii) the relative clause provides an explanation for the event described by the matrix clause (e.g., …who are arrogant and rude). In the on-line study, a similar preference for high attachment emerges in the implicit causality context—crucially, before the occurrence of any linguistic evidence that the RC does in fact provide an explanation—whereas the low-attachment preference is consistent elsewhere. These findings constitute the first demonstration that expectations about ensuing discourse coherence relationships can elicit full reversals in syntactic attachment preferences, and that these discourse-level expectations can affect on-line disambiguation as rapidly as lexical and morphosyntactic cues.
PMCID: PMC3117981  PMID: 21216396
Discourse Processing; Relative Clause Attachment Ambiguity; Implicit Causality; Coherence Relations
18.  Differences in the processing of anaphoric reference between closely related languages: neurophysiological evidence 
BMC Neuroscience  2008;9:55.
The present study examines the involvement of syntactic and semantic/conceptual processes in the comprehension of pronouns in Dutch using the technique of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) replicating and extending an earlier study in German. Dutch and German are closely related and share the same logic in referring to non-diminutive and diminutive NPs (i.e. adding an affix which changes the syntactic gender into neutral). Both languages separate male (hij/er (he)) and female pronouns (zij/sie (she)), as well as a pronoun that refers to an entity of neutral gender, (het/es (it)). However, the neutral pronoun het in Dutch is not only a pronoun, it also is the article of a neutral noun. To investigate the influence of this word class ambiguity on pronoun resolution, as well as to establish the generality of the finding of the German study we manipulated syntactic and biological gender congruency between a personal pronoun and its antecedent in Dutch.
In Dutch, sentences with the word-class (pronoun/article) ambiguous pronoun het elicited an early negative shift (150–280 ms) which continued in the time frame of the N400. For sentences with a syntactically and biologically incongruent pronoun a P600 (in absence of an N400) was obtained, which was independent of the morphological form of the referent.
The neurophysiological pattern found for Dutch stimuli was clearly different from the German study, indicating that the processing of pronouns in these two languages differs. This can be explained in terms of language specific characteristics concerning the word class ambiguous neutral pronoun het. Moreover, in contrast to the findings in the German study, there was no clear effect caused by the morphological form of the referent. Additionally, in Dutch, the pronoun resolution in sentences with a non-diminutive antecedent seems to reflect processes of revision (P600 in absence of an N400), whereas for German evidence was found for clear involvement of conceptual/semantic processes as well as structure building processes (N400/P600 complex).
PMCID: PMC2446385  PMID: 18588672
19.  Neural Mechanisms of Rapid Sensitivity to Syntactic Anomaly 
Recent psycholinguistic models hypothesize that anticipatory processing can speed the response to linguistic input during language comprehension by pre-activating representations necessary for word recognition. We investigated the neurocognitive mechanisms of anticipatory processing by recording event-related potentials (ERPs) to syntactically anomalous (The thief was caught by for police) and well-formed (e.g., The thief was caught by the police) sentences. One group of participants saw anomalies elicited by the same word in every instance (e.g., for; low-variability stimuli), providing high affordances for predictions about the word-form appearing in the critical position. A second group saw anomalies elicited by seven different prepositions (at, of, on, for, from, over, with; high-variability stimuli) across the study, creating a more difficult prediction task. Syntactic category anomalies enhanced the occipital-temporal N170 component of the ERP, indicating rapid sensitivity – within 200 ms of word-onset – to syntactic anomaly. For low-variability but not the high-variability stimuli, syntactic anomaly also enhanced the earlier occipital-temporal P1 component, around 130 ms after word-onset, indicating that affordances for prediction engendered earlier sensitivity to syntactic anomaly. Independent components analysis revealed three sources within the ERP signal whose functional dynamics were consistent with predictive processing and early responses to syntactic anomaly. Distributed neural source modeling (sLORETA) of these early active sources produced a candidate network for early responses to words during reading in the right posterior occipital, left occipital-temporal, and medial parietal cortex.
PMCID: PMC3600774  PMID: 23515395
sentence comprehension; syntactic; anticipatory; prediction; P1; N170; posterior cingulate; occipital temporal cortex
20.  Stuttering and Natural Speech Processing of Semantic and Syntactic Constraints on Verbs 
Previous findings from event-related brain potentials (ERPs) indicate that adults who stutter (AWS) exhibit processing differences for visually presented linguistic information. This study explores how neural activations for AWS may differ for a linguistic task that does not require preparation for overt articulation and/or engage the articulatory loop for silent speech.
Syntactic and semantic processing constraints were examined in AWS and adults who are normally fluent (AWNF) by assessing their behavioral performance and ERPs in a natural speech listening task.
AWS performed similarly to AWNF in identifying verb-agreement violations and semantic anomalies, but ERPs elicited by syntactic and semantic constraints indicated atypical neural functions for AWS. ERPs of the AWNF displayed an expected N400 for reduced semantic expectations and a typical P600 for verb-agreement violations. In contrast, both N400s and P600s for the semantic and verb-agreement conditions were observed in the ERPs of the AWS.
The findings suggest that AWS may engage semantic-syntactic mechanisms more generally for semantic and syntactic processing. These findings converge with earlier studies using visual stimuli to indicate that, while linguistic abilities are normal in AWS, underlying brain activity mediating some aspects of language processing may function differently.
PMCID: PMC2638126  PMID: 18664690
verb-agreement; semantic anomalies; stuttering; language; ERPs
21.  Temporal Characteristics of Online Syntactic Sentence Planning: An Event-Related Potential Study 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(12):e82884.
During sentence production, linguistic information (semantics, syntax, phonology) of words is retrieved and assembled into a meaningful utterance. There is still debate on how we assemble single words into more complex syntactic structures such as noun phrases or sentences. In the present study, event-related potentials (ERPs) were used to investigate the time course of syntactic planning. Thirty-three volunteers described visually animated scenes using naming formats varying in syntactic complexity: from simple words (‘W’, e.g., “triangle”, “red”, “square”, “green”, “to fly towards”), to noun phrases (‘NP’, e.g., “the red triangle”, “the green square”, “to fly towards”), to a sentence (‘S’, e.g., “The red triangle flies towards the green square.”). Behaviourally, we observed an increase in errors and corrections with increasing syntactic complexity, indicating a successful experimental manipulation. In the ERPs following scene onset, syntactic complexity variations were found in a P300-like component (‘S’/‘NP’>‘W’) and a fronto-central negativity (linear increase with syntactic complexity). In addition, the scene could display two actions - unpredictable for the participant, as the disambiguation occurred only later in the animation. Time-locked to the moment of visual disambiguation of the action and thus the verb, we observed another P300 component (‘S’>‘NP’/‘W’). The data show for the first time evidence of sensitivity to syntactic planning within the P300 time window, time-locked to visual events critical of syntactic planning. We discuss the findings in the light of current syntactic planning views.
PMCID: PMC3869740  PMID: 24376601
22.  Cross-age comparisons reveal multiple strategies for lexical ambiguity resolution during natural reading 
Eye-tracking was used to investigate how younger and older (60+) adults use syntactic and semantic information to disambiguate noun/verb (NV) homographs (e.g. park). In event-related potential work using the same materials, Lee and Federmeier (2009, 2011) found that young adults elicited a sustained frontal negativity to NV-homographs when only syntactic cues were available (i.e., in syntactic prose); this effect was eliminated by semantic constraints. The negativity was only present in older adults with high verbal fluency. The current study shows parallel findings: young adults exhibit inflated first fixation durations to NV-homographs in syntactic prose, but not semantically congruent sentences. This effect is absent in older adults as a group. Verbal fluency modulates the effect in both age groups: high fluency is associated with larger first fixation effects in syntactic prose. Older, but not younger, adults also show significantly increased rereading of the NV-homographs in syntactic prose. Verbal fluency modulates this effect as well: high fluency is associated with a reduced tendency to reread, regardless of age. This relationship suggests a tradeoff between initial and downstream processing costs for ambiguity during natural reading. Together, the eye-tracking and ERP data suggest that effortful meaning selection recruits mechanisms important for suppressing contextually inappropriate meanings, which also slow eye movements. Efficacy of fronto-temporal circuitry, as captured by verbal fluency, predicts the success of engaging these mechanisms in both young and older adults. Failure to recruit these processes requires compensatory rereading or leads to comprehension failures (Lee & Federmeier, 2012).
PMCID: PMC3883559  PMID: 23687920
eye-tracking; ERPs; noun/verb homographs; aging; individual differences
23.  Linguistic complexity and information structure in Korean: Evidence from eye-tracking during reading 
Cognition  2006;104(3):495-534.
The nature of the memory processes that support language comprehension and the manner in which information packaging influences online sentence processing were investigated in three experiments that used eye-tracking during reading to measure the ease of understanding complex sentences in Korean. All three experiments examined reading of embedded complement sentences; the third experiment additionally examined reading of sentences with object-modifying, object-extracted relative clauses. In Korean, both of these structures place two NPs with nominative case marking early in the sentence, with the embedded and matrix verbs following later. The type (pronoun, name or description) of these two critical NPs was varied in the experiments. When the initial NPs were of the same type, comprehension was slowed after participants had read the sentence-final verbs, a finding that supports the view that working memory in language comprehension is constrained by similarity-based interference during the retrieval of information necessary to determine the syntactic or semantic relations between noun phrases and verb phrases. Ease of comprehension was also influenced by the association between type of NP and syntactic position, with the best performance being observed when more definite NPs (pronouns and names) were in a prominent syntactic position (e.g., matrix subject) and less definite NPs (descriptions) were in a non-prominent syntactic position (embedded subject). This pattern provides evidence that the interpretation of sentences is facilitated by consistent packaging of information in different linguistic elements.
PMCID: PMC2084389  PMID: 16970936
Linguistic complexity; Information structure; Korean; Working memory; Online comprehension; Noun phrase
24.  Rapid Expectation Adaptation during Syntactic Comprehension 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(10):e77661.
When we read or listen to language, we are faced with the challenge of inferring intended messages from noisy input. This challenge is exacerbated by considerable variability between and within speakers. Focusing on syntactic processing (parsing), we test the hypothesis that language comprehenders rapidly adapt to the syntactic statistics of novel linguistic environments (e.g., speakers or genres). Two self-paced reading experiments investigate changes in readers’ syntactic expectations based on repeated exposure to sentences with temporary syntactic ambiguities (so-called “garden path sentences”). These sentences typically lead to a clear expectation violation signature when the temporary ambiguity is resolved to an a priori less expected structure (e.g., based on the statistics of the lexical context). We find that comprehenders rapidly adapt their syntactic expectations to converge towards the local statistics of novel environments. Specifically, repeated exposure to a priori unexpected structures can reduce, and even completely undo, their processing disadvantage (Experiment 1). The opposite is also observed: a priori expected structures become less expected (even eliciting garden paths) in environments where they are hardly ever observed (Experiment 2). Our findings suggest that, when changes in syntactic statistics are to be expected (e.g., when entering a novel environment), comprehenders can rapidly adapt their expectations, thereby overcoming the processing disadvantage that mistaken expectations would otherwise cause. Our findings take a step towards unifying insights from research in expectation-based models of language processing, syntactic priming, and statistical learning.
PMCID: PMC3813674  PMID: 24204909
25.  Speech Rhythm Facilitates Syntactic Ambiguity Resolution: ERP Evidence 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(2):e56000.
In the current event-related potential (ERP) study, we investigated how speech rhythm impacts speech segmentation and facilitates the resolution of syntactic ambiguities in auditory sentence processing. Participants listened to syntactically ambiguous German subject- and object-first sentences that were spoken with either regular or irregular speech rhythm. Rhythmicity was established by a constant metric pattern of three unstressed syllables between two stressed ones that created rhythmic groups of constant size. Accuracy rates in a comprehension task revealed that participants understood rhythmically regular sentences better than rhythmically irregular ones. Furthermore, the mean amplitude of the P600 component was reduced in response to object-first sentences only when embedded in rhythmically regular but not rhythmically irregular context. This P600 reduction indicates facilitated processing of sentence structure possibly due to a decrease in processing costs for the less-preferred structure (object-first). Our data suggest an early and continuous use of rhythm by the syntactic parser and support language processing models assuming an interactive and incremental use of linguistic information during language processing.
PMCID: PMC3568096  PMID: 23409109

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