contextual cues

“Where Are the . . .Fixations?:” Grammatical Number Cues Guide Anticipatory Fixations to Upcoming Referents and Reduce Lexical Competition

Listeners make use of contextual cues during continuous speech processing that help overcome the limitations of the acoustic input. These semantic, grammatical, and pragmatic cues facilitate prediction of upcoming words and/or reduce the lexical search space by inhibiting activation of contextually inappropriate words that share phonological information with the target. The current study used the visual world paradigm to assess whether and how listeners use contextual cues about grammatical number during sentence processing by presenting target words in carrier phrases that were grammatically unconstraining (“Click on the . . .”) or grammatically constraining (“Where is/are the . . .”). Prior to the onset of the target word, listeners were already more likely to fixate on plural objects in the “Where are the . . .” context than the “Where is the . . .” context, indicating that they used the construction of the verb to anticipate the referent. Further, participants showed less interference from cohort competitors when the sentence frame made them contextually inappropriate, but still fixated on those words more than on phonologically unrelated distractor words. These results suggest that listeners rapidly and flexibly make use of contextual cues about grammatical number while maintaining sensitivity to the bottom-up input.