Formal language hierarchy reflects different levels of cognitive complexity

Silva, S., Inácio, F., Rocha e Sousa, D., Gaspar, N., Folia, V., & Petersson, K. M. (2023). Formal language hierarchy reflects different levels of cognitive complexity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 49(4), 642-660. doi:10.1037/xlm0001182.
Formal language hierarchy describes levels of increasing syntactic complexity (adjacent dependencies, nonadjacent nested, nonadjacent crossed) of which the transcription into a hierarchy of cognitive complexity remains under debate. The cognitive foundations of formal language hierarchy have been contradicted by two types of evidence: First, adjacent dependencies are not easier to learn compared to nonadjacent; second, crossed nonadjacent dependencies may be easier than nested. However, studies providing these findings may have engaged confounds: Repetition monitoring strategies may have accounted for participants’ high performance in nonadjacent dependencies, and linguistic experience may have accounted for the advantage of crossed dependencies. We conducted two artificial grammar learning experiments where we addressed these confounds by manipulating reliance on repetition monitoring and by testing participants inexperienced with crossed dependencies. Results showed relevant differences in learning adjacent versus nonadjacent dependencies and advantages of nested over crossed, suggesting that formal language hierarchy may indeed translate into a hierarchy of cognitive complexity
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