Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Time Course of Semantic and Syntactic Processing in Chinese Sentence Comprehension: Evidence from Eye Movements

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Time Course of Semantic and Syntactic Processing in Chinese Sentence Comprehension: Evidence from Eye Movements

Article excerpt

In the present study, we examined the time course of semantic and syntactic processing when Chinese is read. Readers' eye movements were monitored, and the relation between a single-character critical word and the sentence context was manipulated such that three kinds of sentences were developed: (1) congruent, (2) those with a semantic violation, and (3) those with both a semantic and a syntactic violation. The eye movement data showed that the first-pass reading times were significantly longer for the target region in the two violation conditions than in the congruent condition. Moreover, the semantic+syntactic violation caused more severe disruption than did the pure semantic violation, as reflected by longer first-pass reading times for the target region and by longer go-past times for the target region and posttarget region in the former than in the latter condition. These results suggest that the effects of, at least, a semantic violation can be detected immediately by Chinese readers and that the processing of syntactic and semantic information is distinct in both first-pass and second-pass reading.

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Reading comprehension involves different levels of complex cognitive processes. Besides orthographic, phonological, and semantic processing of individual words, readers also have to build up a coherent meaning representation through integrating the semantic properties of each word according to certain syntactic rules. So far, most evidence from studies of alphabetic languages appears to support the view that readers start all levels of processing in an immediate manner, including the higher order processes of semantic integration and syntactic analysis (Just & Carpenter, 1980). For example, studies in which ambiguous words have been used have indicated that context exerts an immediate influence on word recognition (Duffy, Morris, & Rayner, 1988; Kambe, Rayner, & Duffy, 2001; Rayner, Cook, Juhasz, & Frazier, 2006; Rayner & Duffy, 1986; Rayner & Frazier, 1989; Sereno, O'Donnell, & Rayner, 2006). Moreover, evidence from behavioral and event-related potential (ERP) studies has suggested that readers detect immediately whether a word is semantically congruent with the context or not (Braze, Shankweiler, Ni, & Palumbo, 2002; Rayner, Warren, Juhasz, & Liversedge, 2004; Rösler, Pütz, Friederici, & Hahne, 1993; Van Berkum, Hagoort, & Brown, 1999). In addition, garden path effects, which strongly support the notion that syntactic analysis begins very rapidly, have been observed in many studies (Bader & Lasser, 1994; Crocker, 1994; Frazier & Rayner, 1982; Sturt & Crocker, 1996).

Although the results of a number of studies have suggested that the processing of both syntactic and semantic information occurs quickly and online, the relative time course of such processes and their interplay within the language processor is still not clear. To investigate this issue, the violation paradigm has often been used. The basic manipulation is to change a critical word in a sentence/text so as to introduce an anomaly. By observing and comparing the normal reading patterns and the patterns of disruptions caused by different types of anomalies on word viewing times, researchers can infer how and when the information that caused the anomaly was processed by readers (Chen, 1992, 1999; Danks, Bohn, & Fears, 1983; Rayner et al., 2004). With this paradigm, studies from alphabetic languages have demonstrated that syntactic and semantic processing differ from each other in time course, with the former being initiated earlier than the latter (Braze et al., 2002; McElree & Griffith, 1995). For example, Braze et al. recorded eye movements while readers read sentences that differed by a single word, making the sentence syntactically anomalous (but understandable), pragmatically anomalous, or nonanomalous (control sentences). …

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