Psycholinguistic Investigations on the Role of Conjunctions in Sentence Processing

Angela Shpolberg, University of Odessa

Conjunctions have always existed as a separate group of words in the traditional grammars of static language systems. They have usually been placed on the periphery of the language system, as semantically less valuable elements. Recent research on sentence processing has changed the approach to conjunctions, pointing out a special function of conjunctions as discourse markers. The distinction between language production and language comprehension, however, has not been clearly made in much of the research on conjunctions. Our study is based on a series of experiments performed on spontaneous monologue generation, comprehension, transformation, and retelling in Russian by native and non-native speakers (Russian Language exchange program students from Berlin and Leipzig universities). The results demonstrate that conjunctions play very different roles for speakers/writers as opposed to listeners/readers.

Native speakers used conjunctions automatically, often as components of language clichés. This made language production faster, smoother, and easier, but caused some miscommunication between listener and speaker, when a listener processed only the beginning of the phrase and completed it for himself in a different manner than the speaker (based on his own clichés and experience). Foreign speakers, on the other hand, were very careful listeners and used conjunctions as invaluable helpers in second language acquisition. Often, when speaking spontaneously, however, they would unconsciously put corresponding conjunctions from their native language in place of the second language conjunctions.

For both types of speakers, in language production, conjunctions performed two functions: they helped create a stream of speech (psychological, discourse creative function), and participated in the formation of a language-specific sentence structure (constructive function). The quantity of conjunctions used depended on the type of discourse being generated by the speaker. In language comprehension, conjunctions signaled the relationship between different discourse segments and helped predict the flow of the speech (“signal” function).

All this proved that even though conjunctions seem to be a less interesting part of speech from the traditional language system’s point of view, they play very important roles on different levels of sentence processing. Conjunctions serve as one of the structural elements that facilitate the movement of a static language system.