Zarcone, Alessandra; van Schijndel, Marten; Vogels, Jorrig; Demberg, Vera

Salience and attention in surprisal-based accounts of language processing

Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 2016, ISSN 1664-1078.

The notion of salience has been singled out as the explanatory factor for a diverse range of linguistic phenomena. In particular, perceptual salience (e.g., visual salience of objects in the world, acoustic prominence of linguistic sounds) and semantic-pragmatic salience (e.g., prominence of recently mentioned or topical referents) have been shown to influence language comprehension and production. A different line of research has sought to account for behavioral correlates of cognitive load during comprehension as well as for certain patterns in language usage using information-theoretic notions, such as surprisal. Surprisal and salience both affect language processing at different levels, but the relationship between the two has not been adequately elucidated, and the question of whether salience can be reduced to surprisal / predictability is still open. Our review identifies two main challenges in addressing this question: terminological inconsistency and lack of integration between high and low levels of representations in salience-based accounts and surprisal-based accounts. We capitalize upon work in visual cognition in order to orient ourselves in surveying the different facets of the notion of salience in linguistics and their relation with models of surprisal. We find that work on salience highlights aspects of linguistic communication that models of surprisal tend to overlook, namely the role of attention and relevance to current goals, and we argue that the Predictive Coding framework provides a unified view which can account for the role played by attention and predictability at different levels of processing and which can clarify the interplay between low and high levels of processes and between predictability-driven expectation and attention-driven focus.