Reaction to “Language comprehension and production” by Clifton, Meyer, Wurm, & Treiman (2013)

Reaction to Clifton, Meyer, Wurm, & Treiman (2013) by Richard Thripp
EXP 6506 Section 0002: Fall 2015 – UCF, Dr. Joseph Schmidt
November 19, 2015 [Week 13]

Clifton, Meyer, Wurm, and Treiman (2013) review many themes in current language research. The idea that linguistic rules might be cognitively processed with probabilities, rather than rules (p. 539), seems particularly applicable to English; there are so many oddities and exceptions in English that rule-based processing is often untenable. While we know from Jean Berko Gleason’s research (1958) that young children develop rules fairly early, being able to pluralize the nonsense word “wug,” it may be plausible that a probabilistic approach becomes tenable with a larger database of linguistic rules that is developed in later childhood and adolescence. Having a broader understanding of the language might help us make lexical, semantic, syntactic, and other decisions based on probabilities rather than rules, even for unfamiliar linguistic elements, based on our tacit and explicit memories.

While the authors note that the interactive view of language processing is not falsifiable (Clifton et al., 2013, pp. 539–540), this does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. The modular view is easier to model, conceptualize, and theorize about, and is conveniently similar to how computers and other machines operate. However, the human brain is complex, enigmatic, and far more advanced than computers in many ways—for example, given that unconscious precursors have been found to precede volitional motor movement by as much as several hundred milliseconds (Shibasaki & Hallett, 2006), one might conclude by conventional models that parts of the brain are able to travel backward through time—a manifestly ludicrous conclusion. Adhering to the modular view might be similarly ludicrous. Even “flow” and so-called “a-ha!” moments seem to favor interactive views and preclude modular views, albeit not with respect to language processing. The idea that we may process language in any order, at any time, with any available information, does make the phenomenon difficult to study, unfortunately.

Giving unnecessary information may be easier than paring down our speech output to what is needed (Clifton et al., 2013, p. 536). This is reminiscent of the quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain: “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.” Unlike other brain processes, the idea of distillation taking more effort and processing power parallels computers; consider simply Phil Katz’s DEFLATE algorithm, commonly used by the Linux gzip function. It takes exponentially more computing power to apply and decode increasing levels of lossless compression to digital data. However, translating or distilling language, particularly spoken language, is an art, and certainly a lossy process, although the degree of lossiness and whether such lossiness is acceptable varies between individuals, dyads, and larger groups. Consider that academics are required to write abstracts for their scholarly articles—a process made arduous merely by severe length constraints. If abstracts were lossless, we would never have to read a journal article, but the abstract would probably take a lot longer to read than the article itself, despite being technically shorter. Therefore, producing a good abstract, a short letter, or effective utterances conveying only necessary information is not easy. While it requires more thought and effort than simply spewing out the necessary information among a sea of garbage, doing too good a job of compressing the required information can backfire, resulting in confusion or requests for reiteration. I can think of times in my life where I have explained something concisely and elegantly, yet unsuccessfully. Success may paradoxically require both lossiness and repetition in unexpected places that vary between individuals and subcultures.


Berko, J. (1958). The child’s learning of English morphology. Word, 14, 150–177.

Clifton, C. J., Meyer, A. S., Wurm, L. H., & Treiman, R. (2013). Language comprehension and production. In A. F. Healy, R. W. Proctor, I. B. Weiner, A. F. Healy, R. W. Proctor, I. B. Weiner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, Vol. 4: Experimental psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 523–547). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Shibasaki, H., & Hallett, M. (2006). What is the Bereitschaftspotential? Clinical Neurophysiology, 117, 2341–2356. doi:10.1016/j.clinph.2006.04.025

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