Seminar Series

So when do listeners use context?

A pervasive assumption in sentence comprehension research is that, although listeners very rapidly combine word meanings to establish a context-independent ‘sentence-internal’ meaning, they are considerably slower in computing what the sentence really means in its particular context. The ERP evidence reviewed in my talk suggests that this assumption is unlikely to be correct. Words that do not fit the wider discourse, for instance, elicit an N400 effect within some 150-200 ms after spoken word onset, just like words that do not fit a local ‘sentence-internal’ context. Furthermore, whereas local lexical-semantic animacy violations (e.g., “the peanut was in love”) elicit a large N400 effect in isolation, this effect can be completely neutralized in a cartoon-like story context. Both findings indicate that the wider textual context is immediately involved in interpretation. In addition, listeners also immediately take the nature of the speaker into account: “I need to see my gyneacologist”, for example, elicits an N400 effect if spoken by a male voice, compared to a female one. In all, the evidence suggests that contextual cues to meaning can be brought to bear on comprehension extremely rapidly, as part of the same unified interpretation process that also takes ‘sentence-internal’ lexical-semantic cues into account.