Modeling the effects of memory on human online sentence processing with particle filters

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 21 (NIPS 2008)

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Roger Levy, Florencia Reali, Thomas Griffiths


Language comprehension in humans is significantly constrained by memory, yet rapid, highly incremental, and capable of utilizing a wide range of contextual information to resolve ambiguity and form expectations about future input. In contrast, most of the leading psycholinguistic models and fielded algorithms for natural language parsing are non-incremental, have run time superlinear in input length, and/or enforce structural locality constraints on probabilistic dependencies between events. We present a new limited-memory model of sentence comprehension which involves an adaptation of the particle filter, a sequential Monte Carlo method, to the problem of incremental parsing. We show that this model can reproduce classic results in online sentence comprehension, and that it naturally provides the first rational account of an outstanding problem in psycholinguistics, in which the preferred alternative in a syntactic ambiguity seems to grow more attractive over time even in the absence of strong disambiguating information.