Rule-based and word-level statistics-based processing of language: insights from neuroscience

Nai Ding, Lucia Melloni, Xing Tian, David Poeppel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To flexibly convey meaning, the human language faculty iteratively combines smaller units such as words into larger structures such as phrases based on grammatical principles. During comprehension, however, it remains unclear how the brain encodes the relationship between words and combines them into phrases. One hypothesis is that internal grammatical principles governing language generation are also used to parse the hierarchical syntactic structure of spoken language. An alternative hypothesis suggests, in contrast, that decoding language during comprehension solely relies on statistical relationships between words or strings of words, that is, the N-gram statistics, and no hierarchical linguistic structures are constructed. Here, we briefly review distinctions between rule-based hierarchical models and statistics-based linear string models for comprehension. Recent neurolinguistic studies show that tracking of probabilistic relationships between words is not sufficient to explain cortical encoding of linguistic constituent structure and support the involvement of rule-based processing during language comprehension.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)570-575
Number of pages6
JournalLanguage, Cognition and Neuroscience
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 28 2017


  • Speech
  • grammar
  • language
  • neural oscillations
  • statistics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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