When experience meets language statistics: Individual variability in processing English compound words. Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Statistical patterns of language use demonstrably affect language comprehension and language production. This study set out to determine whether the variable amount of exposure to such patterns leads to individual differences in reading behavior as measured via eye-movements. Previous studies have demonstrated that more proficient readers are less influenced by distributional biases in language (e.g., frequency, predictability, transitional probability) than poor readers. We hypothesized that a probabilistic bias that is characteristic of written but not spoken language would preferentially affect readers with greater exposure to printed materials in general and to the specific pattern engendering the bias. Readers of varying reading experience were presented with sentences including English compound words that can occur in 2 spelling formats with differing probabilities: concatenated (windowsill, used 40% of the time) or spaced (window sill, 60%). Linear mixed effects multiple regression models fitted to the eye-movement measures showed that the probabilistic bias toward the presented spelling had a stronger facilitatory effect on compounds that occurred more frequently (in any spelling) or belonged to larger morphological families, and on readers with higher scores on a test of exposure-to-print. Thus, the amount of support toward the compound's spelling is effectively exploited when reading, but only when the spelling patterns are entrenched in an individual's mental lexicon via overall exposure to print and to compounds with alternating spelling. We argue that research on the interplay of language use and structure is incomplete without proper characterization of how particular individuals, with varying levels of experience and skill, learn these language structures.

publication date

  • November 2015