How do we segment text? Two-stage chunking operation in reading

Yang, J., Cai, Q., & Tian, X. (2020). How do we segment text? Two-stage chunking operation in reading. eNeuro, 7(3): ENEURO.0425-19.2020. doi:10.1523/ENEURO.0425-19.2020.
Chunking in language comprehension is a process that segments continuous linguistic input into smaller chunks that are in the reader’s mental lexicon. Effective chunking during reading facilitates disambiguation and enhances efficiency for comprehension. However, the chunking mechanisms remain elusive, especially in reading given that information arrives simultaneously yet the written systems may not have explicit cues for labeling boundaries such as Chinese. What are the mechanisms of chunking that mediates the reading of the text that contains hierarchical information? We investigated this question by manipulating the lexical status of the chunks at distinct levels in four-character Chinese strings, including the two-character local chunk and four-character global chunk. Male and female human participants were asked to make lexical decisions on these strings in a behavioral experiment, followed by a passive reading task when their electroencephalography (EEG) was recorded. The behavioral results showed that the lexical decision time of lexicalized two-character local chunks was influenced by the lexical status of the four-character global chunk, but not vice versa, which indicated the processing of global chunks possessed priority over the local chunks. The EEG results revealed that familiar lexical chunks were detected simultaneously at both levels and further processed in a different temporal order – the onset of lexical access for the global chunks was earlier than that of local chunks. These consistent results suggest a two-stage operation for chunking in reading–– the simultaneous detection of familiar lexical chunks at multiple levels around 100 ms followed by recognition of chunks with global precedence.
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