Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Time Course of Contextual Influences during Lexical Ambiguity Resolution: Evidence from Distributional Analyses of Fixation Durations

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Time Course of Contextual Influences during Lexical Ambiguity Resolution: Evidence from Distributional Analyses of Fixation Durations

Article excerpt

Published online: 11 May 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract In the lexical ambiguity literature, it is well-established that readers experience processing difficulties when they encounter biased homographs in a subordinate-instantiating prior context (i.e., the subordinate bias effect). To investigate the time course of this effect, the present study examined distributional analyses of first-fixation durations on 60 biased homographs that were each read twice: once in a subordinate-instantiating context and once in a dominant-instantiating context. Ex-Gaussian fitting revealed that the subordinate context distribution was shifted to the right of the dominant context distribution, with no significant contextual differences in the degree of skew. In addition, a survival analysis technique showed a significant influence of the subordinate versus dominant contextual manipulation as early as 139 ms from the start of fixation. These results indicate that the contextual manipulation had a fast-acting influence on the majority of fixation durations, which is consistent with the reordered access model's assumption that prior context can affect the lexical access stage of reading.

Keywords Reading . Eye movements . Distributional analysis . Lexical ambiguity

Readers frequently encounter homographs (e.g., bank), which have multiple meanings associated with a single orthographic form. Competing models of lexical ambiguity resolution agree that readers use contextual information to determine the relevant meaning of a homograph (e.g., the money vs. the river meaning of bank), but controversy has surrounded the temporal locus of contextual influences. On one side of the debate, the modular or autonomous models (e.g., Fodor, 1983; Forster, 1979) have argued that the preceding context does not influence lexical access. Specifically, all meanings of an ambiguous word are accessed exhaustively, regardless of context, and meaning selection is accomplished at the postlexical integration stage. On the other side of the debate, interactive models (e.g., McClelland & Rumelhart, 1981; Morton, 1969) have argued that context can constrain lexical access such that only the contextually relevant meaning is accessed (i.e., selective access).

Historically, the interactive and modularmodels were tested empirically using the cross-modal priming task (e.g., Swinney, 1979). In this task, subjects listened to a disambiguating context and an ambiguous word, while simultaneously responding to a visual prime word that was related to either the contextually relevant or irrelevant meaning of the ambiguous word. The ambiguous word primed both meanings if the prime was presented immediately after the ambiguous word. However, if the prime was delayed by 200 ms, only the contextually relevant meaning showed priming. This pattern of results was largely interpreted as supporting the modular view that contextual influences are postlexical (Fodor, 1983; Forster, 1979; but see Lucas, 1999).

However, the introduction of eye tracking to the study of lexical ambiguity resolution by Rayner and Duffy (1986) has led to additional findings that cannot be easily explained by either the modular or the interactive models. A comprehensive review of the findings from eye movement studies of lexical ambiguity is beyond the scope of the present article (for a review, see Duffy, Kambe & Rayner 2001). Briefly, eye-tracking studies have manipulated aspects of both the context and the homographs. A key aspect of the homographs is the relative frequency of the various meanings (i.e., meaning dominance; Hogaboam & Perfetti, 1975). Specifically, eye-tracking studies have contrasted balanced homographs, which have two approximately equally common meanings, with biased homographs, which have one highly dominant meaning and one or more subordinate meanings. In addition, the preceding context was constructed either to be neutral (i.e., no disambiguating information precedes the homograph) or to instantiate one (or more) of the homograph's meanings. …

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