"Word order predicts a native speakers' working memory"

(Josh Cohen) #1

This is interesting:

Memory plays a crucial role in our lives, and several studies have already investigated how we store and retrieve information under different conditions. Typically, stimuli presented at the beginning and at the end of a list are recalled better than stimuli from the middle. But are these findings universal and generalizable across languages and cultures?

Languages, for instance, vary in their branching direction. In typical right-branching (RB) languages, like Italian, the head of the sentence usually comes first, followed by a sequence of modifiers that provide additional information about the head (e.g. “the man who was sitting at the bus stop”). In contrast, in left-branching (LB) languages, like Japanese, modifiers generally precede heads (e.g. “who was sitting at the bus stop, the man”). In RB languages, speakers could process information incrementally, given that heads are presented first and modifiers rarely affect previous parsing decisions. In contrast, LB structures can be highly ambiguous until the end, because initial modifiers often acquire a clear meaning only after the head has been parsed. Therefore, LB speakers may need to retain initial modifiers in working memory until the head is encountered to comprehend the sentence.

By providing participants with a series of classic memory tasks, the research team could compare their performance when recalling words, numbers and spatial stimuli. “The main finding of the study is that left-branching speakers were better at remembering initial stimuli across verbal and non-verbal working memory tasks, probably because real-time sentence comprehension heavily relies on retaining initial information in LB languages, but not in RB languages,”

More info: The word order of languages predicts native speakers’ working memory