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Is prediction necessary to understand language? Probably not.

Huettig, F., & Mani, N. (2016). Is prediction necessary to understand language? Probably not. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 31(1), 19-31. doi:10.1080/23273798.2015.1072223.
Many psycholinguistic experiments suggest that prediction is an important characteristic of language processing. Some recent theoretical accounts in the cognitive sciences (e.g., Clark, 2013; Friston, 2010) and psycholinguistics (e.g., Dell & Chang, 2014) appear to suggest that prediction is even necessary to understand language. In the present opinion paper we evaluate this proposal. We first critically discuss several arguments that may appear to be in line with the notion that prediction is necessary for language processing. These arguments include that prediction provides a unified theoretical principle of the human mind and that it pervades cortical function. We discuss whether evidence of human abilities to detect statistical regularities is necessarily evidence for predictive processing and evaluate suggestions that prediction is necessary for language learning. Five arguments are then presented that question the claim that all language processing is predictive in nature. We point out that not all language users appear to predict language and that suboptimal input makes prediction often very challenging. Prediction, moreover, is strongly context-dependent and impeded by resource limitations. We also argue that it may be problematic that most experimental evidence for predictive language processing comes from 'prediction-encouraging' experimental set-ups. Finally, we discuss possible ways that may lead to a further resolution of this debate. We conclude that languages can be learned and understood in the absence of prediction. Claims that all language processing is predictive in nature are premature.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 

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