The effects of aging and perceived loneliness on lexical ambiguity resolution

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Article number978616
Journal / PublicationFrontiers in Psychology
Online published20 Oct 2022
Publication statusOnline published - 20 Oct 2022


Language is central to the interactional nature of the social life within which it is situated. To react or respond in a particular situation, we must be able to recognize the social situation. Growing evidence has demonstrated the negative impact of perceived loneliness on late-life executive functions. Yet little is known about how social factors impact language processing for older people. The current study aims to fill this gap, first by assessing age-related changes in lexical processing during Chinese word reading, second, by examining whether older adults’ individual differences, such as processing speed and verbal abilities, modulate meaning retrieval and, third, by investigating whether perceived loneliness can hinder word reading. The use of compound words in Chinese enables significant sublexical ambiguity, requiring varying executive load during word recognition: when a word’s constituent characters carry multiple meanings, readers must consider the meaning contributions of both constituent characters and use top-down word information to determine the most accurate meaning of the ambiguous character, a process termed “sublexical ambiguity resolution.” In this study, adults read real Chinese words (including both sublexically ambiguous and unambiguous words) and pseudowords, and they were asked to make lexical decisions. Older adults exhibited greater lexicality effects (i.e., real words were easier to be identified than pseudowords) and similar sublexical ambiguity effects compared with young adults. Among older participants, processing speed could account for their ability to differentiate between words and pseudowords. In contrast, the level of perceived loneliness modulated the efficacy of sublexical ambiguity resolution: the participants with higher perceived loneliness displayed a greater sublexical ambiguity disadvantage effect. These results indicate that perceived loneliness may affect the use of contextual information in meaning retrieval during reading. The findings provide an important link between social connections and language processing.

Research Area(s)

  • aging, Chinese compounds, perceived loneliness, reading, sublexical ambiguity