Rational Sentence Interpretation in Mandarin Chinese

Cogn Sci. 2023 Dec;47(12):e13383. doi: 10.1111/cogs.13383.

Abstract

Previous work has shown that English native speakers interpret sentences as predicted by a noisy-channel model: They integrate both the real-world plausibility of the meaning-the prior-and the likelihood that the intended sentence may be corrupted into the perceived sentence. In this study, we test the noisy-channel model in Mandarin Chinese, a language taxonomically different from English. We present native Mandarin speakers sentences in a written modality (Experiment 1) and an auditory modality (Experiment 2) in three pairs of syntactic alternations. The critical materials are literally implausible but require differing numbers and types of edits in order to form more plausible sentences. Each sentence is followed by a comprehension question that allows us to infer whether the speakers interpreted the item literally, or made an inference toward a more likely meaning. Similar to previous research on related English constructions, Mandarin participants made the most inferences for implausible materials that could be inferred as plausible by deleting a single morpheme or inserting a single morpheme. Participants were less likely to infer a plausible meaning for materials that could be inferred as plausible by making an exchange across a preposition. And participants were least likely to infer a plausible meaning for materials that could be inferred as plausible by making an exchange across a main verb. Moreover, we found more inferences in written materials than spoken materials, possibly a result of a lack of word boundaries in written Chinese. Overall, the fact that the results were so similar to those found in related constructions in English suggests that the noisy-channel proposal is robust.

Keywords: Mandarin; Noisy channel; Psycholinguistics; Rational inference; Sentence processing.

MeSH terms

  • China
  • Comprehension
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Probability
  • Speech Perception*