A note on Computational Models of Psycholinguistics

I would like to sum up a clear synthesis and state of the art of scientific traditions and ways to deal with language features as a whole. In a chapter entitled ‘Computational Models of Psycholinguistics’ and published in the Cambridge Handbook of Psycholinguistics, Nick Chater and Morten H. Christiansen distinguish three main traditions in psycholinguistic language modeling :

  • a symbolic (Chomskyan) tradition
  • connectionnist psycholinguistics
  • probabilistic models

They state that the Chomskyan approach (as well as nativist theories of language in general) outweighed until recently by far any other one, setting the ground for cognitive science :

Chomsky’s arguments concerning the formal and computational properties of human language were one of the strongest and most influential lines of argument behind the development of the field of cognitive science, in opposition to behaviorism.” (p. 477)

The Symbolic Tradition

They describe the derivational theory of complexity (the hypothesis that number and complexity of transformations correlate with processing time and difficulty) as proving ‘a poor computational model when compared with empirical data’ (p. 479). Further work on generative grammar considered the relationship between linguistic theory and processing as indirect, this is how they explain that this Chomskyan tradition progressively disengaged from work on computational modeling ...

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Feeding the COW at the FU Berlin

I am now part of the COW project (COrpora on the Web). The project has been carried by (amongst others) Roland Schäfer and Felix Bildhauer at the FU Berlin for about two years. Work has already been done, especially concerning long-haul crawls in several languages.


A few resources have already been made available, software, n-gram models as well as web-crawled corpora, which for copyright reasons are not downloadable as a whole. They may be accessed through a special interface (COLiBrI – COW’s Light Browsing Interface) or downloaded upon request in a scrambled form (all sentences randomly reordered).

This is a heavy limitation, but it is still better than no corpus at all if one’s research interest does not rely too closely on features above sentence level. This example shows that legal matters ought to be addressed when it comes to collect texts, and that web corpora are as such not easy research objects to deal with. Making reliable tools public is more important at the end that giving access to a particular corpus.

Research aim

The goal is to perform language-focused (and thus maybe language-aware) crawls and to gather relevant resources for (corpus) linguists, with a particular interest ...

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Ludovic Tanguy on Visual Analysis of Linguistic Data

In his professorial thesis (or habilitation thesis), which is about to be made public (the defence takes place next week), Ludovic Tanguy explains why and on what conditions data visualization could help linguists. In a previous post, I showed a few examples of visualization applied to the field of readability assessment. Tanguy’s questioning is more general, it has to do with what is to include in the disciplinary field of linguistics.

He gives a few reasons to use the methods from the emerging field of visual analytics and mentions some of its upholders (like Daniel Keim or Jean-Daniel Fekete). But he also states that they are not well adapted to the prevailing models of scientific evaluation.

Why use visual analytics in linguistics ?

His main point is the (fast) growing size and complexity of linguistic data. Visualization comes at hand when selecting, listing or counting phenomena does not prove useful anymore. There is evidence from the field of cognitive psychology that an approach based on form recognition may lead to an interpretation. Briefly, new needs come forth when calculations come short.

Tanguy gives to main examples of cases where it is obvious : firstly the analysis of networks, which can be ...

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Review of the readability checker DeLite

Continuing a series of reviews on readability assessment, I would like to describe a tool which is close to what I intend to do. It is named DeLite and is named a ‘readability checker’. It has been developed at the IICS research center of the FernUniversität Hagen.

From my point of view, its main feature is that it has not been made publicly available, it is based on software one has to buy and I did not manage to find even a demo version, although they claim to have been publicly (i.e. EU-)funded. Thus, my description is based on what its designers mention in the articles quoted below.


The article by Glöckner et al. (2006) offers a description of the fundamentals of the software, as well as an interesting summary of research on readability. They depict the ‘classical’ pattern used to come to a readability formula :

  • select elements in a text that are related to readability’,
  • then ‘correlate element occurrences with text readability (measured by established comprehension tests)’,
  • and finally ‘combine the variables into a regression equation’ (p. 32).

This is the approach that led to a preponderance of criteria like word and sentence length, because they ...

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Two open-source corpus-builders for German and French


I already described how to build a basic specialized crawler on this blog. I also wrote about crawling a newspaper website to build a corpus. As I went on work on this issue, I decided to release a few useful scripts under an open-source license.

The crawlers are not just mere link-harvesters, they are designed to be used as corpus-builders. As one cannot republish anything but quotations of the texts, the purpose is to enable others to make their own version of the corpora. Since the newspapers are updated quite often, it is not imaginable to create exact duplicates, that said the majority of the articles will be the same.

Interesting features

The interesting facts are that the crawlers are relatively fast (even if they were not set up for speed) and do not need a lot of computational resources. They may be run on a personal computer.

Due to their specialization, they are able to build a reliable corpus consisting of texts and relevant metadata (e.g. title, author, date and url). Thus, one may gather millions of tokens from home and start exploring the corpus.

The HTML code as well as the superfluous text are stripped in ...

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On global vs. local visualization of readability

It is not only a matter of scale : the perspective one chooses is crucial when it comes to visualize how difficult a text is. Two main options can be taken into consideration :

  • An overview in form of a summary which enables to compare a series of phenomena for the whole text.
  • A visualization which takes the course of the text into account, as well as the possible evolution of parameters.

I already dealt with the first type of visualization on this blog when I evoked Amazon’s text stats. To sum up, their simplicity is also their main problem, they are easy to read and provide users with a first glimpse of a book, but the kind of information they deliver is not always reliable.

Sooner or later, one has to deal with multidimensional representations as the number of monitored phenomena keeps increasing. That is where a real reflexion on finding a visualization that is faithful and clear at the same time. I would like to introduce two examples of recent research that I find to be relevant to this issue.

An approach inspired by computer science

The first one is taken from an article by Oelke et al. (2010 ...

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Gerolinguistics” and text comprehension

The field of “gerolinguistics” is becoming more and more important. The word was first coined by G. Cohen in 1979 and it has been regularly used ever since.

How do older people read ? How do they perform when trying to understand difficult sentences ? It was the idea I was following when I recently decided to read a few papers about linguistic abilities and aging. As I work on different reader profiles I thought it would be an interesting starting point.

The fact is that I did not find what I was looking for, but was not disappointed since the assumption I had made on this matter were proved wrong by recent research. Here is what I learned.

Interindividual variability increases with age

First of all, it is difficult to build a specific profile that would address ‘older people’, as this is a vast category which is merely a subclass of the ‘readers’, and which (as them) contains lots of variable individual evolutions. Very old people (and not necesarily old people) do have more difficulties to read, but this can be caused by very different factors. Most of all, age is not a useful predictor :

Many aspects of language comprehension remain ...

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Microsoft to analyze social networks to determine comprehension level

I recently read that Microsoft was planning to analyze several social networks in order to know more about users, so that the search engine could deliver more appropriate results. See this article on geekwire.com : Microsoft idea: Analyze social networks posts to deduce mood, interests, education.

Among the variables that are considered, the ‘sophistication and education level’ of the posts is mentionned. This is highly interesting, because it assumes a double readability assessment, on the reader’s side and on the side of the search engine. More precisely, this could refer to a classification task.

Here is an extract of a patent describing how this is supposed to work.

[0117] In addition to skewing the search results to the user’s inferred interests, the user-following engine 112 may further tailor the search results to a user’s comprehension level. For example, an intelligent processing module 156 may be directed to discerning the sophistication and education level of the posts of a user 102. Based on that inference, the customization engine may vary the sophistication level of the customized search result 510. The user-following engine 112 is able to make determinations about comprehension level several ways, including from a user’s ...

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Amazon’s readability statistics by example

I already mentioned Amazon’s text stats in a post where I tried to explain why they were far from being useful in every situation : A note on Amazon’s text readability stats, published last December.

I found an example which shows particularly well why you cannot rely on these statistics when it comes to get a precise picture of a text’s readability. Here are the screenshots of text statistics describing two different books (click on them to display a larger view) :

Comparison of two books on Amazon

The two books look quite similar, except for the length of the second one, which seems to contain significantly more words and sentences.

The first book (on the left) is Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, whereas the second is The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner… The writing style could not be more different, however, the text statistics make them appear quite close to each other.

The criteria used by Amazon are too simplistic, even if they usually perform acceptably on all kind of texts. The readability formulas that output the first series of results only take the length of words and sentences into account and their scale is designed for the US school system. In ...

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2nd release of the German Political Speeches Corpus

Last Monday, I released an updated version of both corpus and visualization tool on the occasion of the DGfS-CL Poster-Session in Frankfurt, where I presented a poster (in German).

The first version had been made available last summer and mentioned on this blog, cf this post : Introducing the German Political Speeches Corpus and Visualization Tool.

The resource still uses this permanent redirection : http://purl.org/corpus/german-speeches


If you don’t remember it or never heard of it, here is a brief description :

The resource presented here consists of speeches by the last German Presidents and Chancellors as well as a few ministers, all gathered from official sources. It provides raw data, metadata and tokenized text with part-of-speech tagging and lemmas in XML TEI format for researchers that are able to use it and a simple visualization interface for those who want to get a glimpse of what is in the corpus before downloading it or thinking about using more complete tools.

The visualization output is in valid CSS/XHTML format, it takes advantage of recent standards. The purpose is to give a sort of Zeitgeist, an insight on the topics developed by a government official and on ...

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