People Use Their Knowledge of Common Events to Understand Language, and Do so as Quickly as Possible
Language and Linguistics Compass
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People possess a great deal of knowledge about how the world works, and it is undoubtedly true that adults use this knowledge when understanding and producing language. However, psycholinguistic theories differ regarding whether this extra-linguistic pragmatic knowledge can be activated and used immediately, or only after a delay. The authors present research that investigates whether people immediately use their generalized knowledge of common events when understanding language. This research demonstrates that (i) individual isolated words immediately activate event-based knowledge; (ii) combinations of words in sentences immediately constrain people’s event-based expectations for concepts that are upcoming in language; (iii) syntax modulates people’s expectations for ensuing concepts; and (iv) event-based knowledge can produce expectations for ensuing syntactic structures. It is concluded that theories of sentence comprehension must allow for the rapid dynamic interplay among these sources of information.