Expectations and adaptation in prosodic processing

Prosody - the rhythm, intensity, and intonation of speech - is a crucial aspect of human communication. However, there are still many questions as to how listeners process and represent prosodic information. Prosodic processing has usually been thought of as a mainly bottom-up process, where listeners hear cues and build up their prosodic representations based on this acoustic information. However, because prosody signals information about many other levels of language processing (e.g., syntax, pragmatics, meta-linguistic), it is likely that these other levels of language processing might affect how listeners interpret prosodic information. We decided to study this possibility by investigating the relationship between prosodic and syntactic processing. In a series of studies, we explored how listeners’ representation of prosodic boundaries were affected by their expectations as to where these boundaries should occur given the syntactic structure of the sentence they heard. We find that listeners are most likely to report boundaries at locations where they were more syntactically plausible, despite the acoustic information they received in the message. Additionally, we explore whether listeners can adapt to new prosody-syntax mappings after being given feedback based on their interpretations of ambiguous sentences. Our results suggest that listeners are able to adapt to novel (even contradictory) prosody-syntax mappings after enough exposure. Together, these series of studies shed light on how listeners process prosodic information, suggesting that prosodic representations are somewhat flexible, and are influenced by listeners’ expectations and experience with language.