Processing A Language without Inflections: A Reaction Time Study of Sentence Interpretation in Chinese

Ping Li, Elizabeth Bates, Brian MacWhinney

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124 Scopus citations


Chinese is well-known for its impoverished system of grammatical morphology. This study examines how, in the absence of inflections, Chinese speakers employ other types of cues in real-time sentence interpretation. A reaction time technique was designed to tap into the role of word order, noun animacy, the object marker ba, the passive marker bei, and the indefinite marker yi. Results show the following hierarchy of cue strengths in Chinese: passive marker bei > animacy > word order > object marker ba > indefinite marker yi. The fact that the semimorphological markers (ba and bei) are intercepted by semantic (noun animacy) and syntactic (word order) cues in this strength hierarchy shows that cues are not necessarily grouped together by linguistic type (e.g., morphology > order vs order > morphology). Complex interactions among cue types were observed in both the decision and the reaction time data, reflecting principles of competition and convergence. These findings are compatible with interactive activation models of sentence processing (e.g., the Competition Model), while posing problems for models that assume a modular architecture in which morphological, semantic, and syntactic sources of information are insulated from one another at various points in parsing and interpretation. Finally, reaction time data reveal aspects of processing that are often not available in results from choice response measures, attesting to the usefulness of reaction time studies at the sentence level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)169-192
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1993

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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