The interaction between structure and meaning in sentence comprehension: Recurrent neural networks and reading times

AbstractRecurrent neural network (RNN) models of sentence processing have recently displayed a remarkable ability to learn aspects of structure comprehension, as evidenced by their ability to account for reading times on sentences with local syntactic ambiguities (i.e., garden-path effects). Here, we investigate if these models can also simulate the effect of semantic appropriateness of the ambiguity's readings. RNN-based estimates of surprisal of the disambiguating verb of sentences with an NP/S-coordination ambiguity (as in 'The wizard guards the king and the princess protects ...') show identical patters to human reading times on the same sentences: Surprisal is higher on ambiguous structures than on their disambiguated counterparts and this effect is weaker, but not absent, in cases of poor thematic fit between the verb and its potential object ('The teacher baked the cake and the baker made ...'). These results show that an RNN is able to simultaneously learn about structural and semantic relations between words and suggest that garden-path phenomena may be more closely related to word predictability than traditionally assumed.

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