Spontaneous Spoken Language: Syntax and Discourse

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To summarize, studies on the role of prosody in the disambiguation of spoken utterances suggest that it can allow listeners to decide between two alternative interpretations of an ambiguous utterance.

They also suggest that results obtained with researcher constructed speech or trained speakers might not represent what participants do when they have a clear communicative goal and a co-present addressee. When participants do not have a clear goal, they appear not to mark prosodic boundaries to the same extent as when they do.

In consequence, it appears that researchers need to provide participants with tasks that allow them to spontaneously produce utterances in order to approximate how they would communicate outside the laboratory. As mentioned before, studies on the effects of pitch accents have tended to examine their influence on the processing of the information structure of statements. Birch and Clifton examined the effects of pitch accents on sentence comprehension by asking listeners to rate question-answer utterances for appropriateness of intonation.

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Isn't Kerry good at math? She teaches MATH. When answers accented the new information in the sentences 'teaches' in a , listeners provided more "makes sense" judgments than when answers accented information that had already been mentioned 'math' in b. These results suggest that listeners are sensitive to accent placement, and that they consider that given information should not be highlighted.

Prosody, syntax, and pragmatics: insubordination in spoken Brazilian Portuguese - ACL Anthology

Dahan, Tanenhaus and Chambers examined the role of pitch accents through the use of an eye-tracking technique. Participants were presented with visual displays which included a candle , a candy and a triangle. Their eye movements were tracked as they listened to instructions to move those objects:. When the second instruction accented CAN , participants' looks to the new, non-mentioned item 'candy' if the first instruction had mentioned 'candle' , and 'candle' if the first instruction had referred to 'candy' increased, even before the word was fully articulated.

In other words, listeners seem to be able to make early use of prosody in order to predict upcoming referents. Ito and Speer also studied the effect of pitch accents through the use of an eye-tracking technique. In their study, listeners had to follow pre-recorded instructions to decorate a Christmas tree.

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Ornaments included: candies, stockings, balls, angels, bells, etc. Pitch accents in the instructions varied. They could be assigned to words that conveyed contrastive information, such as:. In this case, only the accented colour of the object contrasted with the previous instruction. Accents could also be assigned to words that did not convey contrastive information:. Results indicated that looks occurred earlier and more often to the target object when accents were placed on contrastive words. These findings provide converging evidence that pitch accents can help listeners predict upcoming words, and can contribute to sentence comprehension.

Weber, Braun, and Crocker also found an effect of pitch accents on the identification of references. They asked participants to follow two consecutive instructions to click on objects on a computer display while they monitored eye movements. The first instruction always introduced one member of a contrast pair purple scissors. The second instruction referred to either the other member of the contrast pair red scissors , or to an object differingin form but not colour from the other member of the pair red vase.

In the other half, the adjective carried a contrastive accent RED scissors.

Since only the red scissors contrasted in colour with another displayed object the purple scissors , the accent was a cue for the upcoming referent. Results indicated there were earlier looks toward the correct object when the adjective was accented compared with when it was not.

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Once more, these findings suggest that listeners rapidly exploit prosodic information to interpret referential expressions. They seem to facilitate the processing of new information even before words have been completed. The studies that we have considered so far allow us to reach some conclusions. Prosody seems to have a role in the processing of spoken sentences. It allows listeners to parse them in order to decide between alternative syntactic interpretations, and it prompts them to focus on specific words that should be highlighted.

Still, these studies do not allow us to draw conclusions about the establishment of discourse connections beyond the identification of references. The establishment of these relations requires for the comprehender to generate connective, reinstatement, elaborative and predictive inferences van den Broek, ; Connective inferences are made when the reader identifies a causal relation between the statement that he or she is reading or hearing, and information that remained activate in working memory after processing the immediately previous statement.

For example, the comprehender needs to establish a causal connection if he or she hears or reads: "Murray poured water on the bonfire. Reinstatement inferences are made when the reader reactivates information presented previously before the immediately previous statement , in order to maintain sufficient causal justification for the statement that he or she is processing.

For example, in "Murray poured water on the bonfire. He heard his cell phone ringing. The fire went out" the comprehender needs to reactivate that "Murray poured water on the bonfire" to understand why "the fire went out". Causal elaborative inferences draw on the readers' background knowledge to identify a causal antecedent that is not explicitly mentioned or to anticipate events.

Among them, there are emotional inferences and predictive inferences. For example, if we read or hear that "While shooting a film, the actor accidentally fell out the 14th floor window. His friends went to the funeral" , we will probably infer that his friends were sad. For example, if we read or hear that "While shooting a film, the actor accidentally fell out the 14th floor window" we probably will infer that he died. Studies that which have examined the role of prosody so far have not considered the generation of these inferences, or how prosodic breaks and pitch accents might interact with them.

It would be therefore interesting to consider whether accenting particular words in a statement might facilitate or hinder the establishment of causal connections and emotional inferences, and whether prosodic breaks would interact with them in the disambiguation of sentences. That is, given that appropriate prosodic breaks disambiguate ambiguous statements, they should allow the comprehender to move on to establish connections with other statements, and generate inferences. Inappropriate prosodic breaks might make it more difficult to parse a spoken statement, and thus not allow the listener to move on to establish causal connections.

For example, if we hear "While shooting a film, the actor accidentally fell out the 14th floor window" , with a prosodic break after "floor" this might make us slowdown in order to process why that break has been placed there, and prevent us from being able to anticipate upcoming events so easily. Also, inappropriate pitch accents could make causal inferences more difficult to generate. For instance, if we hear "Murray poured water on the bonfire. THE fire went out" , it might slow us down so as to process why the accent is placed on "the" instead of on the new information.

Consequently, we would be unable to move on to generate the connective inference. Thus far, the focus has been on the role of pitch accents and prosodic breaks in the comprehension of sentences. Thus, current research agenda should account for how paralinguistic factors from one speaker affect the generation of specific inferences in the other. However, we believe that this issue is just one of the potential set of researchable interactions that are part of a more comprehensive model of spontaneous discourse comprehension and production.

A brief prolegomenon of a model of spontaneous discourse comprehension which has as its ultimate goal the construction of shared embodied situation models is presented: the CoSESM model. The CoSESM model is generated by merging current theories from the embodied cognition framework in relation to language comprehension with classic theories in linguistics.

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Current embodiment theories also acknowledge that comprehension of language requires the use of sensorimotor systems in the brain for the generation of embodied situation models see Barsalou, ; Glenberg, However, current theorisation in the embodiment of language has the problem of defining language as strings of spoken or written words, sentences, or textoids disconnected from their kinesic and paralinguistic co-systems. In order to address this problem, the CoSESM model adopts the Basic Triple Structure Poyatos, in which language, kinesics, and paralanguage are integrated in a unitary communicative system.

More importantly, the CoSESM model includes the conversational context as a factor that has an effect on the communicative act see Poyatos, see Figure 1. The CoSESM model relies on three basic assumptions: parity of the representations, effects of alignments at different levels, and influence of kinesics and paralanguage in the comprehension and production of language 1.


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The SESM is a situation model in that it represents the scenarios, entities, characters, and actions described in the linguistic stream. It is embodied in that it also contains sensorimotor properties associated with the scenarios, entities, characters, and actions described and sensorimotor properties of the conversationalists parties e. The CoSESM model, however, assumes a modified version of the alignment at different levels principle.

Whereas the IA model assumes that "alignment at one level of representation affects alignment at another" Menenti et al. For instance, a mis-alignment at the phonetic level does not necessarily affect the alignment at the pragmatic level and vice versa. There is evidence showing that the comprehension of sentences is relatively high despite them being spoken with an accent e. However, comprehension of spoken language not only relies on the linguistic channel alone but also on the other two co-systems K and P in order to compensate for deficiencies in this channel.