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Memory Interference as a Determinant of Language Comprehension

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Abstract

The parameters of the human memory system constrain the operation of language comprehension processes. In the memory literature, both decay and interference have been proposed as causes of forgetting; however, while there is a long history of research establishing the nature of interference effects in memory, the effects of decay are much more poorly supported. Nevertheless, research investigating the limitations of the human sentence processing mechanism typically focus on decay-based explanations, emphasizing the role of capacity, while the role of interference has received comparatively little attention. This paper reviews both accounts of difficulty in language comprehension by drawing direct connections to research in the memory domain. Capacity-based accounts are found to be untenable, diverging substantially from what is known about the operation of the human memory system. In contrast, recent research investigating comprehension difficulty using a retrieval-interference paradigm is shown to be wholly consistent with both behavioral and neuropsychological memory phenomena. The implications of adopting a retrieval-interference approach to investigating individual variation in language comprehension are discussed.

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