Decoding 'noisy' language in daily life: Study shows how people rationally interpret linguistic input

April 29, 2013 by Peter Dizikes
Decoding ‘noisy’ language in daily life: Study shows how people rationally interpret linguistic input
Credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT

Suppose you hear someone say, "The man gave the ice cream the child." Does that sentence seem plausible? Or do you assume it is missing a word? Such as: "The man gave the ice cream to the child."

A new study by MIT researchers indicates that when we process , we often make these kinds of mental edits. Moreover, it suggests that we seem to use specific strategies for making sense of confusing information—the "noise" interfering with the signal conveyed in language, as researchers think of it.

"Even at the sentence level of language, there is a potential loss of information over a noisy channel," says Edward Gibson, a professor in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Gibson and two co-authors detail the strategies at work in a new paper, "Rational integration of noisy evidence and prior semantic expectations in sentence interpretation," published today in the .

"As people are perceiving language in everyday life, they're proofreading, or proof-hearing, what they're getting," says Leon Bergen, a PhD student in BCS and a co-author of the study. "What we're getting is quantitative evidence about how exactly people are doing this proofreading. It's a well-calibrated process."

Asymmetrical strategies

The paper is based on a series of experiments the researchers conducted, using the Amazon Mechanical Turk survey system, in which subjects were presented with a series of sentences—some evidently sensible, and others less so—and asked to judge what those sentences meant.

A key finding is that given a sentence with only one apparent problem, people are more likely to think something is amiss than when presented with a sentence where two edits may be needed. In the latter case, people seem to assume instead that the sentence is not more thoroughly flawed, but has an alternate meaning entirely.

"The more deletions and the more insertions you make, the less likely it will be you infer that they meant something else," Gibson says. When readers have to make one such change to a sentence, as in the ice cream example above, they think the original version was correct about 50 percent of the time. But when people have to make two changes, they think the sentence is correct even more often, about 97 percent of the time.

Thus the sentence, "Onto the cat jumped a table," which might seem to make no sense, can be made plausible with two changes—one deletion and one insertion—so that it reads, "The cat jumped onto a table." And yet, almost all the time, people will not infer that those changes are needed, and assume the literal, surreal meaning is the one intended.

This finding interacts with another one from the study, that there is a systematic asymmetry between insertions and deletions on the part of listeners.

"People are much more likely to infer an alternative meaning based on a possible deletion than on a possible insertion," Gibson says.

Suppose you hear or read a sentence that says, "The businessman benefitted the tax law." Most people, it seems, will assume that sentence has a word missing from it—"from," in this case—and fix the sentence so that it now reads, "The businessman benefitted from the tax law." But people will less often think sentences containing an extra word, such as "The tax law benefitted from the businessman," are incorrect, implausible as they may seem.

Another strategy people use, the researchers found, is that when presented with an increasing proportion of seemingly nonsensical sentences, they actually infer lower amounts of "noise" in the language. That means people adapt when processing language: If every sentence in a longer sequence seems silly, people are reluctant to think all the statements must be wrong, and hunt for a meaning in those sentences. By contrast, they perceive greater amounts of noise when only the occasional sentence seems obviously wrong, because the mistakes so clearly stand out.

"People seem to be taking into account statistical information about the input that they're receiving to figure out what kinds of mistakes are most likely in different environments," Bergen says.

Reverse-engineering the message

Other scholars say the work helps illuminate the strategies people may use when they interpret language.

"I'm excited about the paper," says Roger Levy, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at San Diego who has done his own studies in the area of noise and language.

According to Levy, the paper posits "an elegant set of principles" explaining how humans edit the language they receive. "People are trying to reverse-engineer what the message is, to make sense of what they've heard or read," Levy says.

"Our -comprehension mechanism is always involved in error correction, and most of the time we don't even notice it," he adds. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to operate effectively in the world. We'd get messed up every time anybody makes a mistake."

Explore further: Getting your message across

More information: Rational integration of noisy evidence and prior semantic expectations in sentence interpretation, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1216438110

Related Stories

Getting your message across

July 16, 2012
Far from processing every word we read or hear, our brains often do not even notice key words that can change the whole meaning of a sentence, according to new research from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Children with brain lesions able to use gestures important to language learning

February 20, 2013
Children with brain lesions suffered before or around the time of birth are able to use gestures – an important aspect of the language learning process– to convey simple sentences, a Georgia State University researcher ...

Hearing positive verbs can induce unconscious physical response

December 5, 2012
Hearing a verb related to physical action automatically increases the force with which people grip objects, but has no effect on their physical reaction if the word is presented in the negative form, according to research ...

BEST: Innovative technique to facilitate language development in children

November 28, 2012
A Newcastle University expert has won a prestigious award for her work to help young children with language difficulties. Dr Cristina McKean and Drs Sean Pert and Carol Stow, who both work for Pennine Care NHS Foundation ...

Applying information theory to linguistics suggests 'functional design' in cross-language variations

October 10, 2012
The majority of languages—roughly 85 percent of them—can be sorted into two categories: those, like English, in which the basic sentence form is subject-verb-object ("the girl kicks the ball"), and those, like Japanese, ...

Recommended for you

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

US antidepressant use jumps 65 percent in 15 years

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—The number of Americans who say they've taken an antidepressant over the past month rose by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014, a new government survey finds.

Child's home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

August 15, 2017
Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that ...

Obesity and depression are entwined, yet scientists don't know why

August 15, 2017
About 15 years ago, Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, started noticing a pattern. People came to see her because they were depressed, but they frequently had a more visible ailment as well: They were heavy.

Givers really are happier than takers

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—Generosity really is its own reward, with the brain seemingly hardwired for happiness in response to giving, new research suggests.

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

7 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

verkle
Apr 29, 2013
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2013
Oh my gawd, verkle's back, yay !

So have you been able to 'infer' all books claiming a deity are stories and artefacts of "voices in the head" or dreams such as Daniel reported ?

Hey mate, given your obvious (previous) odd religious bias towards a deity 'that did it all' which was claimed by moses and mohammed, then:-

So, tell us please, in clear straightforward language why are all postulated deities such very bad communicators and the claims of their self styled 'prophets' (who (LOL) just happen to achieve great status) are never ever confirmed ?
MagnetoX1
not rated yet Apr 30, 2013
Actually when I first read the example "Onto the cat jumped a table", my first assumption was that the cat's name was Onto :D. Read that way, it *does* make sense.
determinist
not rated yet Apr 30, 2013
This is why POETRY is effective.
soo
not rated yet May 01, 2013
I can testify that as one's hearing gradually deteriorates, it becomes second nature to fill in the blanks (omissions) and a common practice to substitute certain consonants, which can lead to amazing interpretations. Others are not as amused as I am at this phenomenon.
beleg
1 / 5 (2) May 03, 2013
Suppose you hear someone say, "The man gave the ice cream the child." Does that sentence seem plausible? Or do you assume it is missing a word? Such as: "The man gave the ice cream to the child."
A new study by MIT researchers indicates that when we process language, we often make these kinds of mental edits.

Read more at: http://medicalxpr...html#jCp

All Physorg readers know that when we process a readers' commentary, we often make these kinds of mental edits.

Mental edits only work in the rarest of cases here.
beleg
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2013
Punctuation marks and acoustics are irreplaceable aids for interpretation. Is text appearance an aid? See above.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.