Top-down information is more important in noisy situations: Exploring the role of pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic information in language processing

AbstractLanguage processing depends on the integration of bottom-up information with top-down cues from several different sources—primarily our knowledge of the real world, of discourse contexts, and of how language works. Previous studies have shown that factors pertaining to both the sender and the receiver of the message affect the relative weighting of such information. Here, we suggest another factor that may change our processing strategies: perceptual noise. We hypothesize that listeners weight different sources of top-down information more in situations of perceptual noise than in noise-free situations. Using a sentence-picture matching experiment with four forced-choice alternatives, we show that degrading the speech input with noise compels the listeners to rely more on top-down information in processing. We discuss our results in light of previous findings in the literature, highlighting the need for a unified model of spoken language comprehension in different ecologically valid situations, including under noisy conditions.

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