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Journal Article

Establishing reference in language comprehension: An electrophysiological perspective


Van Berkum,  Jos J. A.
Neurobiology of Language Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
The Neurobiology of Language, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Language in Action , MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam;
Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior, External Organizations;

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Van Berkum, J. J. A., Koornneef, A. W., Otten, M., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2007). Establishing reference in language comprehension: An electrophysiological perspective. Brain Research, 1146, 158-171. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2006.06.091.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0013-166B-0
The electrophysiology of language comprehension has long been dominated by research on syntactic and semantic integration. However, to understand expressions like "he did it" or "the little girl", combining word meanings in accordance with semantic and syntactic constraints is not enough--readers and listeners also need to work out what or who is being referred to. We review our event-related brain potential research on the processes involved in establishing reference, and present a new experiment in which we examine when and how the implicit causality associated with specific interpersonal verbs affects the interpretation of a referentially ambiguous pronoun. The evidence suggests that upon encountering a singular noun or pronoun, readers and listeners immediately inspect their situation model for a suitable discourse entity, such that they can discriminate between having too many, too few, or exactly the right number of referents within at most half a second. Furthermore, our implicit causality findings indicate that a fragment like "David praised Linda because..." can immediately foreground a particular referent, to the extent that a subsequent "he" is at least initially construed as a syntactic error. In all, our brain potential findings suggest that referential processing is highly incremental, and not necessarily contingent upon the syntax. In addition, they demonstrate that we can use ERPs to relatively selectively keep track of how readers and listeners establish reference.