Discourse level processing

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This chapter provides an overview of how the visual-world eye-tracking paradigm has been used to investigate the processing and representation of discourse-level information. The chapter starts by reviewing some theoretical approaches to information structure, and then turns to visual-world experiments on the prosodic and syntactic reflexes of information structure, as well as the consequences of information structure for reference resolution. The notion of ‘prominence’ plays a central role in many of these investigations, in the shape of prosodic prominence (associated with new information), syntactic prominence (often associated with given or topical information) and representational prominence / accessibility in the domain of reference resolution. Comprehenders use prominence-related information to guide discourse-level aspects of processing, but prosodic prominence and syntactic prominence have different information-structural correlates. Furthermore, if we want to conceptualize reference resolution as a process sensitive to the prominence of mental representations, our view of what factors influence referential prominence needs to include not only entity-related factors (e.g. givenness), but also event-related factors (e.g. verb semantics and coherence relations between events). As a whole, the findings discussed in this chapter highlight the rapidity with which the human language processing system uses of discourse-level information, whether it be encoded in pitch accents, word order or the form of referring expressions. These findings suggest that discourse-level comprehension should not be relegated to a secondary stage of processing and instead occurs in tandem with other aspects of language comprehension, such as lexical access and syntactic processing.


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