Syntactic and semantic interference in sentence comprehension: Support from English and German eye-tracking data
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Description: A long-standing debate in the sentence processing literature concerns the time course of syntactic and semantic information processing in online sentence comprehension. The default assumption in cue-based models of parsing is that syntactic and semantic retrieval cues simultaneously guide dependency resolution. When retrieval cues match multiple items in memory, this leads to similarity-based interference. Both semantic and syntactic interference have been shown to occur in English. However, the relative timing of syntactic vs. semantic interference remains unclear. In this cross-linguistic investigation of the time course of syntactic vs. semantic interference, the data from two eye-tracking during reading experiments (English and German) suggest that the two types of interference can in principle arise simultaneously during retrieval. However, the data also indicate that semantic cues are evaluated with a small timing lag in German compared to English. This cross-linguistic difference between English and German may be due to German having richer morphosyntactic marking than English, resulting in syntactic cues dominating over semantic cues during dependency resolution. More broadly, our cross-linguistic results pose a challenge for the cue-based retrieval model’s default assumption that syntactic and semantic cues are used simultaneously during long-distance dependency formation. Our work also highlights the importance of collecting cross-linguistic data on psycholinguistic phenomena which can potentially advance theory development.