Scientists make strides explaining how we discern language

April 11, 2017, American Institute of Physics
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Perhaps you have been thinking of taking a foreign language course and are undecided whether to take an evening or morning class. Adding to your indecision: You are concerned about your ability to understand someone speaking another language.

Research provides partial guidance. In her April Physics Today feature, "From Sound to Meaning," University of Connecticut cognitive scientist Emily Myers recounts her group's discovery that people retain what they've learned in a language class better if they go to bed before they get the chance hear a lot of their own during the rest of the day. Evening classes are better.

That and other findings draw on big strides in a cross-disciplinary effort that is currently advancing understanding of how people derive meaning from sounds.

Myers starts off by explaining phonemes, the "abstract units of perception and production that, when swapped, produce a change in the word." Phonemes vary across cultures. For example, for an English speaker, the "r" and "l" are heard as distinct phonemes. In contrast, the Japanese do not have distinct "r" and "l" phonemes. To a Japanese listener, "play" and "pray" sound the same.

Myers is not only talking about linguistics here: Physics is important too for turning vocalizations into understanding. For example, differences in voice onset time (VOT), the speed with which a sound is vocalized, bear on how the is interpreted. She describes how the human mind becomes adept at working with these and other variables so that speakers and their listeners can enter a community of understanding. It is a distinctly biological ability (at least for now), an observation that Myers supports by illustrating how Siri or Alexa speech-recognition interfaces go awry when they try to interpret rapid speech.

Yet, the human system for producing and understanding speech is not terribly resilient. Myers describes how we develop a communicative ability through "perceptual narrowing," which may lead to skill and perceptiveness for the inevitable situations where communication occurs amidst interference. What follows perceptual narrowing is "perceptual entrenchment," also an inevitability. One not-so-fortunate byproduct is adults' difficulties with new languages or unfamiliar accents.

So, if you are puzzled why Siri sometimes misunderstands you or why children learn languages better than adults do, turn to Myers's article. It's freely available on Physics Today's website, and can be accessed directly here:

Explore further: Why deaf people can have accents, too

More information: Emily B. Myers. From sound to meaning, Physics Today (2017). DOI: 10.1063/PT.3.3523

Related Stories

Why deaf people can have accents, too

March 22, 2017
Most people have probably encountered someone who appears to use lip-reading to overcome a hearing difficulty. But it is not as simple as that. Speech is "bimodal", in that we use both sounds and facial movements and gestures ...

Researchers develop multimedia corpus of noise-induced word misperceptions

February 20, 2017
Completely quiet conditions are actually quite rare. Most of the time, there is some kind of ambient noise present, including traffic, machinery, or conversations. Native speakers with a rich experience of a particular language ...

New study reveals how the brain recognizes speech sounds (w/ video)

January 30, 2014
UC San Francisco researchers are reporting a detailed account of how speech sounds are identified by the human brain, offering an unprecedented insight into the basis of human language. The finding, they said, may add to ...

Recommended for you

Beef jerky and other processed meats associated with manic episodes

July 18, 2018
An analysis of more than 1,000 people with and without psychiatric disorders has shown that nitrates—chemicals used to cure meats such as beef jerky, salami, hot dogs and other processed meat snacks—may contribute to ...

Depression during pregnancy rises in a generation

July 18, 2018
Anxiety and depressive symptoms during pregnancy have risen by 51 per cent within a generation according to findings from a major study by the University of Bristol published last week [Friday 13 July].

Forty percent of people have a fictional first memory, says study

July 17, 2018
Researchers have conducted one of the largest surveys of people's first memories, finding that nearly 40 per cent of people had a first memory which is fictional.

Celebrating positives improves classroom behavior and mental health

July 17, 2018
Training teachers to focus their attention on positive conduct and to avoid jumping to correct minor disruption improves child behaviour, concentration and mental health.

Algorithm identifies patients best suited for antidepressants

July 17, 2018
McLean Hospital researchers have completed a study that sought to determine which individuals with depression are best suited for antidepressant medications. Their findings, published in Psychological Medicine on July 2, ...

Researchers explore how information enters our brains

July 17, 2018
Think you're totally in control of your thoughts? Maybe not as much as you think, according to a new San Francisco State University study that examines how thoughts that lead to actions enter our consciousness.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.