New NSF grant to Dillon, Meltzer-Asscher & Keshev

Brian Dillon (PI), Aya Meltzer-Asscher (co-PI), and Maayan Keshev have been awarded an NSF-BSF research grant entitled “Bridging encoding and retrieval perspectives on sentence processing errors: Comparing Hebrew and English” (NSF total costs $226,954). The public summary is below. Remarkably, this now makes three NSF research grants that Brian holds. The other two are “Disjoint reference in real-time comprehension: Computational and cross-linguistic perspectives” ($428,254) and “Testing quantitative predictions of sentence processing theories with a large-scale eye-tracking database” ($256,864), a collaborative project with Tal Linzen of NYU. Also remarkable is the fact that the sum of the total costs of these three grants is about one million dollars. Congratulations Brian!

To understand language, people need to form links between words that are far apart. For example, if someone says that  “The dog with the very shiny and healthy black fur doesn’t usually bark,” the listener needs to associate the “dog” with “bark,” even though those words are far apart. To do this, language users need to rely on memory to put words and concepts together. However, human memory is famously prone to error: Humans routinely forget, misremember, and conflate aspects of their experience. In the context of language understanding, these memory failures can lead to incorrect interpretations of sentences. This project aims to understand how and why memory can distort language comprehension by looking at how memory errors impact speakers of two very different languages, English and Hebrew. English and Hebrew differ in how they organize the words in sentences. Hebrew also divides all nouns into masculine and feminine genders, similar to languages like Spanish but unlike English. The researchers will study how these linguistic differences between Hebrew and English influence when interpretation errors will arise in speakers of these two languages. In doing so, the researchers will try to uncover characteristics of memory errors that have the same effect on comprehension across languages and those that are language-specific. The results of this project will be used to understand how human memory systems support real-time language comprehension.

Research on this question suggests that two kinds of processes can disrupt language comprehension when a sentence requires the reader to hold multiple words in memory. One process occurs when the features of more recent words accidentally overwrite parts of earlier words. This type of ‘encoding error’ means that the reader erroneously perceives a word that recombines the features of two different words. For example, in a sentence like “The road to the mountains was blocked,” they may misremember road as roads by combining the singular “road” with the plural feature of “mountains.” Another type of error can arise when trying to retrieve a particular word from memory. For example, a reader or listener might pick out the wrong word from memory at the critical moment in understanding a sentence, thinking that the mountains were blocked in the sentence above, rather than the road (a ‘retrieval’ error). Language comprehension can in principle be disrupted by either or both of these processes. The investigators will use eye-tracking-while-reading and speeded acceptability judgments in English and Hebrew to evaluate the relative contribution of encoding and retrieval errors in both languages. The particular pattern of comprehension errors that arises in reading will then be tested against computational models of human working memory in language processing. The combination of these two research methods will help account for how people understand sentences so easily most of the time, and why misinterpretations can and do arise at other times. Understanding how and when interpretation errors arise can also help us better understand various language and reading deficits, such as dyslexia. This project will advance collaboration between American and Israeli language researchers and will involve advanced STEM training for researchers at different career stages, from undergraduates to post-doctoral scholars, located both in the US and in Israel.
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