Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Working Memory Contributions to Relative Clause Attachment Processing: A Hierarchical Linear Modeling Analysis

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Working Memory Contributions to Relative Clause Attachment Processing: A Hierarchical Linear Modeling Analysis

Article excerpt

An eye-movement-monitoring experiment tested readers' responses to sentences containing relative clauses that could be attached to one or both of two preceding nouns. Previous experiments with such sentences have indicated that globally ambiguous relative clauses are processed more quickly than are determinately attached relative clauses. Central to the present research, a recent study (Swets, Desmet, Hambrick, & Ferreira, 2007) showed that offline preferences for such sentences differ as a function of working memory capacity. Specifically, both English and Dutch participants' preference for the second of two nouns as the host for the relative clause increased as their working memory capacity increased. In the present study, readers' working memory capacity was measured, and eye movements were monitored. Hierarchical linear modeling was used to determine whether working memory capacity moderated readers' online processing performance. The modeling indicated that determinately attached sentences were harder to process than globally ambiguous sentences, that working memory did not affect processing of the relative clause itself, but that working memory did moderate how easy it was to integrate the relative clause with the preceding sentence context. Specifically, in contrast with the offline results from Swets and colleagues' study, readers with higher working memory capacity were more likely to prefer the first noun over the second noun as the host for the relative clause.

Psycholinguists and cognitive psychologists are interested in the relationship between general cognitive capacities and online processing. In particular, a great deal of attention has been paid to the relationship between working memory capacity and language processing. Measures of working memory capacity correlate with general measures of verbal ability, and quasiexperimental designs often show between-group differences on various language processing tasks (e.g., Daneman, 1991 ; Daneman & Merikle, 1996; Just & Carpenter, 1992; King & Just, 1991 ; King & Kutas, 1995; MacDonald, Just, & Carpenter, 1992; Pearlmutter & MacDonald, 1995). Although some researchers agree that working memory capacity affects the efficiency of high-level discourse processes, such as integration of new information and inference generation (e.g., Caplan & Waters, 1999; Just & Varma, 2002), and that very low level, automatic processes such as word identification or phonological processing are not substantially affected by working memory limitations, there is substantial disagreement about whether the working memory capacity that is assessed by tasks such as sentence span (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980) affects syntactic parsing and other preinterpretive processes (Caplan & Waters, 1995, 1999; Just & Carpenter, 1992; Just, Carpenter, & Keller, 1996; Waters & Caplan, 1992, 1996a, 1996b; see Traxler, Williams, Blozis, & Morris, 2005, for a review).

Another, related debate focuses on the question of whether working memory resources exist as a psychological entity separate from the neural systems that undertake specific cognitive tasks. MacDonald and Christiansen (2002) advocated an approach that essentially abolishes working memory capacity as an explanatory construct. They suggested that "individual differences in comprehension do not stem from variations in a separate working memory capacity; instead they emerge from an interaction of biological factors and language experience" (p. 35). On this account, correlations between performance on working memory tasks and language comprehension tasks are the result of linguistic processes that must be undertaken in both domains. MacDonald and Christiansen emphasized the quality of phonological representations as the source of individual differences in sentence processing, especially for sentences with complex syntax. This stands in contrast to Just and Carpenter's (e.g., 1992) theory, according to which working memory capacity can vary independently of other variables, such as experience, the quality of phonological codes, and processing speed. …

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