Seminar Series

What speakers do and don't do to be understood by their listeners

If speakers want to be understood by their listeners, they must not be ambiguous to those listeners. In this talk, I review research from my lab that (a) aims to delineate the circumstances under which speakers do and don't avoid producing ambiguous linguistic expressions; (b) describes the mechanisms by which speakers avoid (or not) producing ambiguous expressions; and (c) speculates about why production might play out as such, given the ultimate objective of successful communication. The experiments and analysis suggest that (a) speakers avoid linguistic ambiguity only under very limited circumstances; (b) that such (mostly non-) avoidance arises because of the nature of the processing relationship between the meaning representations that serve as the starting point of production, and the linguistic representations that are subsequently encoded; and (c) that this is so because the objective of the production system is to produce utterances efficiently, leaving to listeners the task of interpreting sometimes suboptimal utterances, and to our language's grammar the guarantee that communication will succeed nonetheless.