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Freeman Lecture 2019 featuring Fernanda Ferreira (UC Davis)

Professor Ferreira’s area of research is psycholinguistics. She uses basic insights from formal linguistics, especially theories in sentence phonology and syntax, to develop models of processing. Her empirical work relies both on behavioral and neural measures, including eyetracking (for measurement of fixations, saccades and pupil diameter) and the recording of event-related potentials (ERPs). The fundamental aim of her research is to uncover the mechanisms that enable humans to understand and generate language in real time and in cooperation with other cognitive systems.

Title:  "Planning and Deciding during Language Production"


Speakers must decide how to convert unordered thoughts and ideas into a structured sequence of linguistic forms that communicates their intended message. One solution to this linearization problem is for speakers to begin with information that is easy to access and encode, allowing them to retrieve more difficult material during articulation and minimizing the need for pauses and other disfluencies. On this view, the syntactic form of a sentence emerges as a byproduct of speakers’ attempts to accommodate the early placement of a constituent. This incremental strategy is also thought to characterize multi-utterance production, which implies that the initial utterance of a discourse will reflect easily accessed or primed content. However, evidence for this kind of incremental planning strategy during multi-utterance production is sparse. Based on a new line of research using scene description tasks, we have developed a competing theory which assumes that speakers build a detailed macro-plan for the upcoming sequence of utterances. This work shows that speakers do not begin their descriptions with information that is salient or easy, but instead start with what is most meaningful. One key innovation of this work is our application of new techniques for quantifying the spatial distribution of meaning over a scene to the challenge of explaining linearization during language production. Our results suggest that a linearization plan guides speakers’ attention during language production and determines the sequencing of utterances, in contrast to “see-say” models of speaking which assume an incremental process. Moreover, application of the same approach to single-sentence production suggests that the language production system as a whole is less incremental than has been assumed.