Daniel Michel’s dissertation defense – June 23, 2pm

The Department of Linguistics is pleased to announce
Daniel Michel’s dissertation defense.
Monday, June 23, 2014, 2:00 pm- 4:00 pm
Applied Physics and Mathematics Building, Room 4301.

Individual cognitive measures and working memory accounts of syntactic island phenomena
Daniel Michel

This dissertation examines the on-line processing and off-line acceptability judgments of whether-islands using an individual differences approach in order to test processing accounts of island phenomena. Processing accounts of islands propose that the unacceptability of an island violation (1) can be attributed to difficulties in on-line processing compared to control sentences (2), but accounts differ in how this difficulty is characterized.

(1) * Who had the sailor inquired whether the captain befriended openly?
(2) Who had the sailor assumed that the captain befriended openly?

The capacity-constrained account (e.g. Kluender 1991), based on the capacity-constrained view of working memory (Just & Carpenter 1992), predicts that the greatest difficulty in the island violation will be at the clause boundary (whether) where a confluence of storage and processing costs overwhelm the capacity of the parser. Sprouse, Wagers and Phillips (2012) recently tested this account by looking for co-variation of acceptability scores and working memory scores. The three experiments reported here (acceptability judgments, Chapter 4; self-paced reading, Chapter 5; event-related potentials- ERPs, Chapter 6) follow a similar approach, but additionally test a novel ‘similarity-interference’ account of islands based on the similarity-based interference view of working memory (e.g. Gordon, Hendrik and Johnson 2001; Lewis, Vasishth & Van Dyke 2006).

In order to clarify the relationship between off-line acceptability and on-line processing, two frameworks are introduced (Chapter 4): the Cognitive Co-variation Intuition (CCI) and the Processing Benefits Schedule (PBS). Together with an examination of individual differences (i.e. reading span, memory interference), these frameworks allow for a clearer comparison of on-line and off-line data. Ultimately, the data reported here do not support a view where processing factors directly and transparently lead to the unacceptability of an island violation (neither do they directly support a grammatical account of islands). However, the ERP data indicate the importance of real time prediction for the on-line processing of islands. This is formalized as the gap predictability account of processing islands.

Specifically, high span readers are better able to adjust their predictions for a gap online (evidenced by an N400 response at the embedded gap, suggesting lowered expectation for a gap in an island context), but both high and low span readers show evidence of filler-gap association (evidenced by post-gap LANs). There was no evidence of a failed parse or reanalysis in any condition or in any group of participants, as predicted by both processing and grammatical accounts, yet these same participants still rated island violations as the least acceptable sentences. Even though the brain responses to the island and non-island embedded gaps were basically the same (modulated only for predictability of the gap), the acceptability responses still differed. There is no apparent evidence of a large on-line processing cost that would account for this difference in acceptability. These island violations appear to be unacceptable, but not unparseable.