Speakers must decide how to convert unordered thoughts and ideas into a structured sequence of linguistic forms that communicates their intended message; that is, they must make a series of linearization decisions. One approach to this decision-making challenge is for speakers to begin with information that is easy to access and encode, allowing them to retrieve more difficult material during articulation and minimizing the need for pauses and other disfluencies. On this view, which is sometimes referred to as the Easy-First strategy, ordering decisions emerge as a byproduct of speakers’ attempts to accommodate the early placement of a linguistic expression. This incremental strategy is also thought to characterize multi-utterance production, which implies that the initial utterance of a discourse will reflect easily accessed or primed content. Using scene description tasks, we have developed a competing theory which assumes that speakers instead build a detailed macro-plan for an upcoming sequence of utterances that reflects the semantics of the scene. Our research shows that the order in which objects in a scene are described correlates with a specific aspect of object meaning, namely what we term “interactability”: the extent to which a human would be likely to interact with the object. We conclude that linearization decisions in language production are primarily driven not by an Easy-First strategy but instead emerge from a hierarchical plan that is based on a semantic representation of object affordances.
Fernanda Ferreira, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Member of the Graduate Program in Linguistics at the University of California, Davis. Her research is focused on uncovering the mechanisms that enable humans to understand and generate language in real time and in cooperation with other cognitive systems. In 1995 she received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology (Human Learning and Cognition), and she is a Fellow of the American Psychological Society, the Cognitive Science Society, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 2015, Dr. Ferreira was elected to the Governing Board of the Psychonomic Society and currently is the Chair of its Fellows Committee. She served as Associate Editor of the journal Cognitive Psychology from 2013-2020, and from 2006-2010 she was Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. She has been a member of the Linguistics Panel of the National Science Foundation and is currently a standing member of the National Institutes of Health Study Section on Language and Communication.