We analyze if large language models are able to predict patterns of human reading behavior. We compare the performance of language-specific and multilingual pretrained transformer models to predict reading time measures reflecting natural human sentence processing on Dutch, English, German, and Russian texts. This results in accurate models of human reading behavior, which indicates that transformer models implicitly encode relative importance in language in a way that is comparable to human processing mechanisms. We find that BERT and XLM models successfully predict a range of eye tracking features. In a series of experiments, we analyze the cross-domain and cross-language abilities of these models and show how they reflect human sentence processing.
The uniform information density (UID) hypothesis posits a preference among language users for utterances structured such that information is distributed uniformly across a signal. While its implications on language production have been well explored, the hypothesis potentially makes predictions about language comprehension and linguistic acceptability as well. Further, it is unclear how uniformity in a linguistic signal—or lack thereof—should be measured, and over which linguistic unit, e.g., the sentence or language level, this uniformity should hold. Here we investigate these facets of the UID hypothesis using reading time and acceptability data. While our reading time results are generally consistent with previous work, they are also consistent with a weakly super-linear effect of surprisal, which would be compatible with UID’s predictions. For acceptability judgments, we find clearer evidence that non-uniformity in information density is predictive of lower acceptability. We then explore multiple operationalizations of UID, motivated by different interpretations of the original hypothesis, and analyze the scope over which the pressure towards uniformity is exerted. The explanatory power of a subset of the proposed operationalizations suggests that the strongest trend may be a regression towards a mean surprisal across the language, rather than the phrase, sentence, or document—a finding that supports a typical interpretation of UID, namely that it is the byproduct of language users maximizing the use of a (hypothetical) communication channel.