How language production shapes language form and comprehension

Front Psychol. 2013 Apr 26;4:226. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00226. eCollection 2013.


Language production processes can provide insight into how language comprehension works and language typology-why languages tend to have certain characteristics more often than others. Drawing on work in memory retrieval, motor planning, and serial order in action planning, the Production-Distribution-Comprehension (PDC) account links work in the fields of language production, typology, and comprehension: (1) faced with substantial computational burdens of planning and producing utterances, language producers implicitly follow three biases in utterance planning that promote word order choices that reduce these burdens, thereby improving production fluency. (2) These choices, repeated over many utterances and individuals, shape the distributions of utterance forms in language. The claim that language form stems in large degree from producers' attempts to mitigate utterance planning difficulty is contrasted with alternative accounts in which form is driven by language use more broadly, language acquisition processes, or producers' attempts to create language forms that are easily understood by comprehenders. (3) Language perceivers implicitly learn the statistical regularities in their linguistic input, and they use this prior experience to guide comprehension of subsequent language. In particular, they learn to predict the sequential structure of linguistic signals, based on the statistics of previously-encountered input. Thus, key aspects of comprehension behavior are tied to lexico-syntactic statistics in the language, which in turn derive from utterance planning biases promoting production of comparatively easy utterance forms over more difficult ones. This approach contrasts with classic theories in which comprehension behaviors are attributed to innate design features of the language comprehension system and associated working memory. The PDC instead links basic features of comprehension to a different source: production processes that shape language form.

Keywords: language acquisition; language comprehension; language production; language typology; motor control; serial order; syntax; working memory.