Linguistic Illusions (Guest Speaker Colin Phillips, 4/9/13)

Colin Phillips, a professor at the UMD Linguistics Department spoke to us about linguistic illusions. He specializes in psycholinguistics and is “an authority on diverse topics such as sentence processing, pronoun/anaphora resolution, real-time language processing, and many others.”

He asked that we read a paper that introduces some grammatical illusions and selective fallibility of the brain’s language processor. It was accurate several years ago, but “some more recent findings undermine certain conclusions”. Partial outline available here, thanks to Alan. To see some grammatical illusions explained in nontechnical language, look here.

Slideshow is available here – note that we did not get to everything.

NOTES (thanks to Megan Chao):

  • There is often ambiguity in language (e.g. HISTORIC CHURCH + TOILETS sign)
  • Examples of visual illusions: we are inclined to see a certain effect (e.g. curved instead of straight lines); of course this can also occur in language
  • Ideally, language should be robust even in noisy environments
  • This leads to examples of confusing japanese sentences where verbs come at the end:
    • ジョンが マリーに トムが お店で ミルクを 買ったと 言った
      • John-nom / Mary-dat / Tom-nom / store-at / milk-acc / buy-decl / told
      • Translation: “John told Mary that Tom bought milk at the store.”
    • ジョンが マリーに りんごを 食べた 犬を あげた
      • John-nom / Mary-dat / apple-acc / ate / dog-acc / gave
      • [Did not catch the translation in time]
  • Electrical/magnetic brain activity
    • It takes us about 250-400 milliseconds to access words in language
    • That makes about 3-5 word accessed per second
    • At each word, the brain does the following to understand the language
      • Visual/acoustic processing
      • Phoneme recognition
      • Word recognition
      • Syntactic analysis
      • Semantic interpretation
    • But, there is a computational bottleneck: updating interpretation at each word requires much more time than is available
  • Models
    • Iron chef model
    • McDonalds’ model (quality may have to be sacrificed)
    • Julia Child’s cooking show model
  • Tower of Pisa: visual illusion where identical pictures look misaligned side-by-side

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