Chunking Ability Shapes Sentence Processing at Multiple Levels of Abstraction

Abstract

Several recent empirical findings have reinforced the notion that a basic learning and memory skill—chunking—plays a fundamental role in language processing. Here, we provide evidence that chunking shapes sentence processing at multiple levels of linguistic abstraction, consistent with a recent theoretical proposal by Christiansen and Chater (2016). Individual differences in chunking ability at two different levels is shown to predict on-line sentence processing in separate ways: i) phonological chunking ability, as assessed by a variation on the non-word repetition task, predicts processing of complex sentences featuring phonological overlap; ii) multiword chunking ability, as assessed by a variation on the serial recall task, is shown to predict reading times for sentences featuring long-distance number agreement with locally distracting number-marked nouns. Together, our findings suggest that individual differences in chunking ability shape language processing at multiple levels of abstraction, consistent with the notion of language acquisition as learning to process.


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