Information Structure and Word Order Canonicity in the Comprehension of Spanish Texts: An Eye-Tracking Study

Word order alternation has been described as one of the most productive information structure markers and discourse organizers across languages. Psycholinguistic evidence has shown that word order is a crucial cue for argument interpretation. Previous studies about Spanish sentence comprehension have shown greater difficulty to parse sentences that present a word order that does not respect the order of participants of the verb’s lexico-semantic structure, irrespective to whether the sentences follow the canonical word order of the language or not. This difficulty has been accounted as the cognitive cost related to the miscomputation of prominence status of the argument that precedes the verb. Nonetheless, the authors only analyzed the use of alternative word orders in isolated sentences, leaving aside the pragmatic motivation of word order alternation. By means of an eye-tracking task, the current study provides further evidence about the role of information structure for the comprehension of sentences with alternative word order and verb type, and sheds light on the interaction between syntax, semantics and pragmatics. We analyzed both “early” and “late” eye-movement measures as well as accuracy and response times to comprehension questions. Results showed an overall influence of information structure reflected in a modulation of late eye-movement measures as well as offline measures like total reading time and questions response time. However, effects related to the miscomputation of prominence status did not fade away when sentences were preceded by a context that led to non-canonical word order of constituents, showing that prominence computation is a core mechanism for argument interpretation, even in sentences preceded by context.

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