Language is shaped by brain’s desire for clarity and ease

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Congratulations to Masha Fedzechkina on her article on a bias for efficient information transfer during language learning that has just appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link to article).

Here’s some news coverage

More to come soon.

Errata: We are sorry that in our paper we forgot to acknowledge the help of three undergraduate research assistants, Andy Wood, Irene Minkina, and Cassandra Donatelli, in preparing the video animations used during our artificial language learning task.


HLP Lab at the LSA and congratulations to Judith Degen and Masha Fedzechkina

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Congratulations to Judith Degen and Masha Fedzechkina for having their two abstracts be among only twelve selected to be “media-worthy” by LSA reviewers:

  • Degen, J. and Jaeger, T. F. 2011.  Speakers sacrifice some (of the) precision in conveyed meaning to accommodate robust communication. Talk to be presented at the 2011 Meeting of the LSA.
    • Session: Pragmatics II  31
    • Room: Le Batea
    • Time: Friday 2pm

The process of encoding an intended meaning into a linguistic utterance is well-known to be affected by production pressures. We present corpus data suggesting that the choice between even two seemingly non-meaning-equivalent forms as in (1a) and (1b) can be affected by speakers’ preference to distribute information uniformly across the linguistic signal (Uniform Information Density (UID), Jaeger 2006). This suggests that even when two forms do not encode the same (but a similar enough) message, speakers may sacrifice precision in meaning for increased processing efficiency.

(1a) Alex ate some chard.
(1b) Alex ate some of the chard

  • Fedzechkina, M., Jaeger. T. F. , and Newport, E. 2011. Word order and case marking in language acquisition and processing. Poster to be presented at the 2011 Meeting of the LSA.
    • Session: Language Acquisition/Psycholinguistics/Syntax
    • Room: Grand Ballroom Foyer
    • Time: 9:00 – 10:30 AM.

To understand a sentence, comprehenders must identify its actor and patient. In principle, these relationships can be signaled using a single cue, but most languages employ several redundant cues, including word order and case marking. In artificial language learning experiments we investigate word order and case as cues in processing and learning. In languages without case marking, learners regularize word order; but when case marking is present, it is favored and limits word order regularization. Case-marking comes with a disadvantage: it is more complex to acquire. But the present results suggest that this may be outweighed by clarity for processing.

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