De Vries, M. H., Petersson, K. M., Geukes, S., Zwitserlood, P., & Christiansen, M. H. (2012). Processing multiple non-adjacent dependencies: Evidence from sequence learning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences,367, 2065-2076. doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0414.
Processing non-adjacent dependencies is considered to be one of the hallmarks of human language. Assuming that sequence-learning tasks provide a useful way to tap natural-language-processing mechanisms, we cross-modally combined serial reaction time and artificial-grammar learning paradigms to investigate the processing of multiple nested (A1A2A3B3B2B1) and crossed dependencies (A1A2A3B1B2B3), containing either three or two dependencies. Both reaction times and prediction errors highlighted problems with processing the middle dependency in nested structures (A1A2A3B3_B1), reminiscent of the ‘missing-verb effect’ observed in English and French, but not with crossed structures (A1A2A3B1_B3). Prior linguistic experience did not play a major role: native speakers of German and Dutch—which permit nested and crossed dependencies, respectively—showed a similar pattern of results for sequences with three dependencies. As for sequences with two dependencies, reaction times and prediction errors were similar for both nested and crossed dependencies. The results suggest that constraints on the processing of multiple non-adjacent dependencies are determined by the specific ordering of the non-adjacent dependencies (i.e. nested or crossed), as well as the number of non-adjacent dependencies to be resolved (i.e. two or three). Furthermore, these constraints may not be specific to language but instead derive from limitations on structured sequence learning.