Skip to main content

Syntactic priming in illiterate and literate older Chinese adults

Abstract

Does life-long literacy experience modulate syntactic priming in spoken language processing? Such a postulated influence is compatible with usage-based theories of language processing that propose that all linguistic skills are a function of accumulated experience with language across life. Here we investigated the effect of literacy experience on syntactic priming in Mandarin in sixty Chinese older adults from Hebei province. Thirty participants were completely illiterate and thirty were literate Mandarin speakers of similar age and socioeconomic background. We first observed usage differences: literates produced robustly more prepositional object (PO) constructions than illiterates. This replicates, with a different sample, language, and cultural background, previous findings that literacy experience affects (baseline) usage of PO and DO transitive alternates. We also observed robust syntactic priming for double-object (DO), but not prepositional-object (PO) dative alternations for both groups. The magnitude of this DO priming however was higher in literates than in illiterates. We also observed that cumulative adaptation in syntactic priming differed as a function of literacy. Cumulative syntactic priming in literates appears to be related mostly to comprehending others, whereas in illiterates it is also associated with repeating self-productions. Further research is needed to confirm this interpretation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Availability of data and material

The data and R code used for data analysis can be found at: https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/BHN2W, https://osf.io/bhn2w/

References

  • Abbot-Smith, K., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Exemplar-learning and schematization in a usage-based account of syntactic acquisition. The Linguistic Review, 23(3), 275–290.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barr, D. J., Levy, R., Scheepers, C., & Tily, H. J. (2013). Random effects structure for confirmatory hypothesis testing: Keep it maximal. Journal of Memory and Language, 68, 255–278.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bates, D., Mächler, M., Bolker, B., & Walker, S. (2014). Fitting linear mixed-effects models using lme4. Statistics & Computing, 1406(1), 133–199.

  • Bock, K. (1986). Syntactic persistence in language production. Cognitive Psychology, 18(3), 355–387.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bock, K., & Griffin, Z. M. (2000). The persistence of structural priming: Transient activation or implicit learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129(2), 177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bock, K., Dell, G., Chang, F., & Onishi, K. (2007). Persistent syntactic priming from language comprehension to language production. Cognition, 104(3), 437–458.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Branigan, H. P., & Messenger, K. (2016). Consistent and cumulative effects of syntactic experience in children’s sentence production: Evidence for error-based implicit learning. Cognition, 157, 250–256.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Branigan, H. P., Pickering, M. J., & Cleland, A. A. (2000). Syntactic co-ordination in dialogue. Cognition, 75(2), B13–B25.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bybee, J. (1995). Regular morphology and the lexicon. Language and Cognitive Processes, 10(5), 425–455.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bybee, J. L. (2006). From usage to grammar: the mind’s response to repetition. Language, 82(4), 711–733.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cai, Z. G., Pickering, M. J., Yan, H., & Branigan, H. P. (2011). Lexical and syntactic representations in closely related languages: Evidence from Cantonese–Mandarin bilinguals. Journal of Memory and Language, 65(4), 431–445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cai, Z. G., Pickering, M. J., & Branigan, H. P. (2012). Mapping concepts to syntax: Evidence from structural priming in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of Memory and Language, 66(4), 833–849.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cai, Z. G., Pickering, M. J., Wang, R., & Branigan, H. P. (2015). It is there whether you hear it or not: Syntactic representation of missing arguments. Cognition, 136, 255–267.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chang, F. (2002). Symbolically speaking: A connectionist model of sentence production. Cognitive Science, 26(5), 609–651.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chang, F., Dell, G. S., Bock, K., & Griffin, Z. M. (2000). Structural priming as implicit learning: A comparison of models of sentence production. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 29(2), 217–230.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chang, F., Dell, G. S., & Bock, K. (2006). Becoming syntactic. Psychological Review, 113(2), 234.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chang, F., Janciauskas, M., & Fitz, H. (2012). Language adaptation and learning: Getting explicit about implicit learning. Language and Linguistics Compass, 6(5), 259–278.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chen, X., Branigan, H. P., Wang, S., Huang, J., & Pickering, M. (2019). Syntactic representation is independent of semantics in Mandarin: Evidence from syntactic priming. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 35(2), 211–220.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Croft, W. (1995). Autonomy and functionalist linguistics. Language, 71(3), 490–532.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Croft, W. (2000). Explaining language change: An evolutionary approach. Longmans.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dehaene, S., Cohen, L., Morais, J., & Kolinsky, R. (2015). Illiterate to literate: Behavioural and cerebral changes induced by reading acquisition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 234–244.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Demoulin, C., & Kolinsky, R. (2016). Does learning to read shape verbal working memory? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(3), 703–722.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eviatar, Z. (1997). Language experience and right hemisphere tasks: The effects of scanning habits and multilingualism. Brain and Language, 58(1), 157–173.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Favier, S., & Huettig, F. (2021). Long-term written language experience affects grammaticality judgments and usage but not priming of spoken sentences. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/17470218211005228 in press.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Favier, S., Meyer, A. S., & Huettig, F. (2021). Literacy can enhance syntactic prediction in spoken language processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (in press)

  • Fernandes, T., Arunkumar, M., & Huettig, F. (2021). The role of the written script in shaping mirror-image discrimination: Evidence from illiterate, Tamil literate, and Tamil-Latin-alphabet bi-literate adults. Cognition, 206, 104493.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hervais-Adelman, A., Kumar, U., Mishra, R. K., Tripathi, V. N., Guleria, A., Singh, J. P., & Huettig, F. (2019). Learning to read recycles visual cortical networks without destruction. Science Advances, 5(9), eaax0262.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Huang, J., Pickering, M. J., Yang, J., Wang, S., & Branigan, H. P. (2016). The independence of syntactic processing in mandarin: Evidence from structural priming. Journal of Memory and Language, 91, 81–98.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Huettig, F., Kolinsky, R., & Lachmann, T. (2018). The culturally co-opted brain: How literacy affects the human mind. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 33(3), 275–277.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Huettig, F., & Pickering, M. J. (2019). Literacy advantages beyond reading: Prediction of spoken language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23(6), 464–475.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jaeger, T. F., & Snider, N. E. (2013). Alignment as a consequence of expectation adaptation: Syntactic priming is affected by the prime’s prediction error given both prior and recent experience. Cognition, 127(1), 57–83.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kolinsky, R., Verhaeghe, A., Fernandes, T., Mengarda, E. J., Grimm-Cabral, L., & Morais, J. (2011). Enantiomorphy through the looking glass: Literacy effects on mirror-image discrimination. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(2), 210–238.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Langacker, R. W. (1988). A usage-based model. In B. Rudzka-Ostyn (Ed.), Topics in Cognitive Linguistics (pp. 127–161). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Levin, B. (1993). English verb classes and alternations: A preliminary investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lukatela, K., Carello, C., Shankweiler, D., & Liberman, I. (1995). Phonological awareness in illiterates: Observations from Serbo–Croatian. Applied Psycholinguistics, 16(4), 463–487.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mahowald, K., James, A., Futrell, R., & Gibson, E. (2016). A meta-analysis of syntactic priming in language production. Journal of Memory and Language, 91, 5–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mani, N., & Huettig, F. (2014). Word reading skill predicts anticipation of upcoming spoken language input: A study of children developing proficiency in reading. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 126, 264–279.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mishra, R. K., Singh, N., Pandey, A., & Huettig, F. (2012). Spoken language-mediated anticipatory eye movements are modulated by reading ability: Evidence from Indian low and high literates. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 5(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.16910/jemr.5.1.3

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morais, J., Cary, L., Alegria, J., & Bertelson, P. (1979). Does awareness of speech as a sequence of phones arise spontaneously? Cognition, 7(4), 323–331.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morais, J., Bertelson, P., Cary, L., & Alegria, J. (1986). Literacy training and speech segmentation. Cognition, 24(1–2), 45–64.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Olivers, C. N. L., Huettig, F., Singh, J. P., & Mishra, R. K. (2014). The influence of literacy on visual search. Visual Cognition, 22(1), 74–101.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pegado, F., Nakamura, K., Braga, L. W., Ventura, P., Nunes Filho, G., Pallier, C., & Dehaene, S. (2014). Literacy breaks mirror invariance for visual stimuli: A behavioral study with adult illiterates. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 887–894.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pickering, M. J., & Branigan, H. P. (1998). The representation of verbs: Evidence from syntactic priming in language production. Journal of Memory and Language, 39(4), 633–651.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prakash, P., Rekha, D., Nigam, R., & Karanth, P. (1993). Phonological awareness, orthography and literacy. In R. Scholes (Ed.), Literacy and language analysis (pp. 55–70). Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • R Core Team (2018) A language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna, Austria: R Foundation for Statistical Computing. Retrieved from https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__www.r-2Dproject.org_&d=DwIFbw&c=vh6FgFnduejNhPPD0fl_yRaSfZy8CWbWnIf4XJhSqx8&r=XKLTO4rISwn1iDeOVmNccMj666RrQFg4pByE2lB-Tuq05m0S7Pa-OYNxVqtW29lJ&m=DxNMtVqK36PmjIhjsn0C6SuzP4vK7qwSAc92mVq98bc&s=bj3et4JmYySggC6sqIFFDB0Dy_xn07GnMw--mdDUbys&e=

  • Scheepers, C. (2003). Syntactic priming of relative clause attachments: Persistence of structural configuration in sentence production. Cognition, 89(3), 179–205.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Skeide, M. A., Kumar, U., Mishra, R. K., Tripathi, V. N., Guleria, A., Singh, J. P., & Huettig, F. (2017). Learning to read alters cortico-subcortical cross-talk in the visual system of illiterates. Science Advances, 3(5), e1602612.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smalle, E. H. M., Szmalec, A., Bogaerts, L., Page, M. P. A., Narang, V., Misra, D., Araújo, S., Lohagun, N., Khan, O., Singh, A., Mishra, R. K., & Huettig, F. (2019). Literacy improves short-term serial recall of spoken verbal but not visuospatial items—Evidence from illiterate and literate adults. Cognition, 185, 144–150.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tomasello, M. (2000). First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cognitive Linguistics, 11(1/2), 61–82.

    Google Scholar 

  • Van Paridon, J., Ostarek, M., Arunkumar, M., & Huettig, F. (2021). Does neuronal recycling result in destructive competition? The influence of learning to read on the recognition of faces. Psychological Science., 32, 459–465. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620971652

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank Siqi Qiu for help in the stimuli design and pilot study, and Yuejin Yue from Yang-En University in conducting the experiment. We are grateful for the helpṠ from the village heads of Changshanyu County in Chengde city. This research was supported by the Max Planck Society and Zhejiang University (‘Hundred Talents’ research position 411836 awarded to EP).

Funding

This research was supported by the Max Planck Society and Zhejiang University.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Qianxi Lv.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

The present research complied with the standards of the Zhejiang University ethics board.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Appendix

Appendix

Stimuli

Baseline primes.

  Prime sentences Target sentences (possible description)
1 小宝宝醒了.
‘The newborn baby woke up.’
男孩抛了一个球给小狗.
‘The boy threw a ball to the dog.’
2 巫婆走了.
‘The witch went away.’
女孩喂了食物给小狗.
‘The girl fed some food to the dog.’
3 妈妈笑了.
‘The mother smiled.’
厨师盛了一盘菜给女人.
‘The chef held a dish to the woman.’
4 宝宝饿了.
‘The baby was hungry.’
医生配了药品给病人.
‘The doctor prescribed some medicine to the patient.’
5 弟弟醒了.
‘The brother woke up.’
女孩带了一束捧花给新娘.
‘The girl brought a flower bouquet to the bride.’
6 男孩跌倒了.
‘The boy fell down.’
总经理租了一栋房子给一家人.
‘The manager rent a house to the family.’
7 孩子睡了.
‘The child was asleep.’
工人搬了一箱水给病人.
‘The delivery man delivered a case of water to the patient.’
8 工人下岗了.
‘The worker was laid-off.’
接待员拿了一条裙子给舞者.
‘The hostess brought a dress to the dancer.’
9 小孩哭了.
‘The child cried.’
商人卖了一个玩具给孕妇.
‘The trader sold a toy to the pregnant woman.’
10 小偷上当了.
‘The thief was cheated.’
新郎递了一枚戒指给新娘.
‘The groom gave a ring to the bride.’
11 孕妇晕了.
‘The pregnant woman fainted.’
男人赏了一点小费给服务员.
‘The man awarded a tip to the waiter.’
12 小丑跑了.
‘The clown ran away.’
女人买了一个蛋糕给小孩.
‘The woman bought a cake for the child.’

PO primes.

Num Prime sentences Target sentences
1 女人拿了一张纸给画家.
‘The woman handed a piece of paper to the painter.’
医生拿{了一支体温计给小女孩}{给小女孩一支体温计}.
‘The doctor handed {a thermometer to the girl}{the girl a thermometer}.’
2 画家送了一幅画给男孩.
‘The painter gave a painting to the boy.’
小丑送{了一个气球给女孩}{给女孩一个气球}.
‘The clown gave {a balloon to the girl}{the girl a balloon}.’
3 男人赠了礼物给女孩.
‘The man gave a gift to the girl.’
爷爷赠{了一个棒棒糖给男孩}{给男孩一个棒棒糖}.
‘The old man gave {a lollipop to the boy}{the boy a lollipop}.’
4 村民抛了一块石头给孩子.
‘The villager threw a stone to the child.’
男人抛{了一个篮球给男孩}{给男孩一个篮球}.
‘The man threw {a basketball to the boy}{the boy a basketball}.’
5 修车工还了车给司机.
‘The mechanic returned the car to the driver.’
保安还{了一把钥匙给女人}{给女人一把钥匙}.
‘The security guard returned {the key to the woman}{the woman the key}.’
6 老奶奶送了一块西瓜给女孩.
‘The old woman gave a piece of watermelon to the girl.’
老师送{了一些铅笔给女孩}{给女孩一些铅笔}.
‘The teacher gave {some pencils to the girl}{the girl some pencils}.’
7 家长交了学费给老师.
‘The parents paid the class fee to the teacher.’
小偷交{了一条项链给警察}{给警察一条项链}.
‘The thief handed {a necklace to the policeman}{the policeman a necklace}.’
8 经理留了一把苕帚给清洁工.
‘The manager left a broom to the street sweeper.’
舞蹈家留{了一双舞鞋给女孩}{给女孩一双舞鞋}.
‘The dancer left {a pair of dancing shoes to the girl}{the girl a pair of dancing shoes}.’
9 邮递员带了一封信给女人.
‘The postman brought a letter to the woman.’
护士带{了一些糖给小男孩}{给小男孩一些糖}.
‘The nurse brought {some candy to the boy}{the boy some candy}.’
10 服务员递了一道菜给顾客.
‘The waiter handed a dish to the customer.’
男人递{了一张车票给乘务员}{给乘务员一张车票}.
‘The man handed {the train ticket to the stewardess}{the stewardess the train ticket}.’
11 农民留了一些蔬菜给小兔子.
‘The peasant left some vegetable to the rabbit.’
父母留{了一个手镯给女孩}{给女孩一个手镯}.
‘The parents left {a bracelet to the girl}{the girl a bracelet}.’
12 侦探交了一份指纹给警察.
‘The detectives handed a sample of fingerprints to the police.’
快递员交{了一个箱子给男人}{给男人一个箱子}.
‘The postman handed {a box to the man}{the man a box}.’

DO primes.

  Prime sentences Target sentences
1 男人借给乞丐一个碗.
‘The man lent the beggar a bowl.’
老师借{给男孩一把伞}{了一把伞给男孩}.
‘The teacher lent {the boy an umbrella}{an umbrella to the boy}.’
2 老爷爷赏给小猫一条鱼.
‘The old man awarded the cat a fish.’
老师赏{给男孩一本书}{了一本书给男孩}.
‘The teacher awarded {the boy a book}{a book to the boy}.’
3 游客丢给乞丐一些硬币.
‘The tourist tossed the beggar some coins.’
女孩丢{给清洁工一个易拉罐}{了一个易拉罐给清洁工}.
‘The girl tossed {the street sweeper a can}{a can to the street sweeper}.’
4 老师赠给男孩一本书.
‘The teacher gave the boy a book.’
歌手赠{给女孩一把吉他}{了一把吉他给女孩}.
‘The singer gave {the girl a guitar}{a guitar to the girl}.’
5 邮差借给商人一辆自行车.
‘The postman lent the trader a bicycle.’
农民借{给老爷爷一把镰刀}{了一把镰刀给老爷爷}.
‘The peasant lent {the old man a sickle}{a sickle to the old man}.’
6 秘书拿给主任一支笔.
‘The secretary gave the director a pen.’
女人拿{给画家一幅画}{了一幅画给画家}.
‘The woman gave {the painter a painting}{a painting to the painter}.’
7 老爷爷抛给渔夫一张渔网.
‘The old man threw the fisher a fishing net.’
女人抛{给小宝宝一个泰迪熊}{了一个泰迪熊给小宝宝}.
‘The woman threw {the toddler a teddy bear}{a teddy bear to the toddler}.’
8 营业员递给男孩一部手机.
‘The shop assistant handed the boy a smart phone.’
空姐递{给女孩一杯茶}{了一杯茶给女孩}.
‘The stewardess handed {the girl a cup of tea}{a cup of tea to the girl}.’
9 老奶奶留给女孩一串项链.
‘The old woman left the girl a necklace.’
宇航员留{给男孩一把国旗}{了一把国旗给男孩}.
‘The astronaut gave {the boy a national flag}{a national flag to the boy}.’
10 男孩还给画家一幅画.
‘The boy returned the painter the painting.’
女孩还{给清洁工一把苕帚}{了一把苕帚给清洁工}.
‘The girl returned {the cleaner the mop}{the mop to the cleaner}.’
11 农夫带给男孩一些牛奶.
‘The farmer brought the boy some milk.’
服务员带{给男人一些蘑菇}{了一些蘑菇给男人}.
‘The waiter brought {the man some mushrooms}{some mushrooms to the man}.’
12 富翁送给流浪汉一些衣服.
‘The rich man gave the tramp some clothes.’
接待员送{给女人一杯饮料}{了一杯饮料给女人}.
‘The hostess gave {the woman an orange juice}{an orange juice to the woman}.’

See Fig. 7 and Tables 4, 5, 6.

Fig. 7
figure 7

Proportion of PO responses per each condition

Table 4 Based on 3919 data points; Loglik = − 2973; interactions are indicated with “:”
Table 5 Results from the logistic mixed-effects model on the DO productions, investigating the effects of immediate priming, cumulative adaptation and literacy group
Table 6 The number of other responses per each prime condition and literacy group

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hu, Y., Lv, Q., Pascual, E. et al. Syntactic priming in illiterate and literate older Chinese adults. J Cult Cogn Sci 5, 267–286 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41809-021-00082-9

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s41809-021-00082-9

Keywords

  • Priming
  • Literacy
  • Transitive alternates
  • Mandarin
  • Cumulative adaptation
  • Self-productions