abstract Martin Pickering

Martin Pickering (University of Edinburgh)

The representation and processing of language: Evidence from structural priming

When people hold conversations, they tend to copy each other’s linguistic choices, and such imitation underlies communicative success. It suggests that interlocutors share a range of linguistic representations, and also that each individual draws on largely equivalent representations in production and comprehension. In this talk, I consider the nature of these representations and their relationship to language processing. I primarily focus on representations concerned with syntax and discuss work looking at English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, in both monolinguals and bilinguals, using the experimental method known as structural priming (Pickering & Ferreira, 2008). I briefly review early work demonstrating structural priming in dialogue, in which interlocutors tend to utter a sentence like The cowboy handing the banana to the burglar after their partner has used a syntactically similar utterance – a tendency which is considerably enhanced if the verb is repeated (the “lexical boost”). I report similar findings in Mandarin within a speaker (i.e., production-to-production priming), and suggest that the same representations are used across languages and modalities.

Priming is informative about the nature of linguistic representation, and provides a method that is in many ways superior to the use of acceptability judgements (Branigan & Pickering, in press). I illustrate this by considering several studies involving Mandarin, concerned with such issues as the syntactic representation of missing arguments, the question of whether semantics and syntax are fully autonomous, and the status of closed-class elements. I also consider structural priming between languages and discuss its implication for language integration in bi- and multi-linguals. I report recent studies on the effects of language distance on priming, by comparing priming between Cantonese and Mandarin with priming between English and Mandarin. Throughout my talk, I emphasise the importance of priming for understanding cognitive representations – both how they are involved in “psycholinguistic” questions of language processing and “linguistic” questions of the nature of language itself. In conclusion, priming provides a method for understanding fundamental issues in the language sciences, and at the same time underlies natural, everyday conversation.


Branigan, H.P., & Pickering, M.J. (in press). An experimental approach to linguistic representation. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (target article, with commentaries and response).

Pickering, M.J., & Ferreira, V.S. (2008). Structural priming: A critical review. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 427-459.