Psycholinguists (scientists who study language processing) focus on three aspects of language competence: acquisition, comprehension, and production. Language acquisition is the language learning, in babyhood or later. Language comprehension is the ability to extract intended meanings from language. Language production is the ability to speak or write fluently.

What topics are included in psycholinguistics? What is the common relationship between comprehension and production, in order of development?

As a rule, comprehension develops faster than production. A three year old can understand more than the same child can speak. A non-native speaker of English can understand more than he or she can say. A student new to a discipline can understand the professional jargon before being able to produce it.

Comprehension and the problem of ambiguity

What is ambiguity?

Language comprehension would be easy if a particular combination of words always meant the same thing. But expressions can often be interpreted more than one way. Such expressions are ambiguous (having more than one meaning). Unintended puns in newspaper headlines ("Housing for Elderly Still Not Dead") are examples of ambiguous language. The same words can lead to more than one interpretation or meaning.

What are homophones? Homographs? Homonyms?

One source of ambiguity in language is the existence of multiple meanings for individual words. By one estimate, over half the commonly used English words either (1) sound like other words or (2) look like other words. Words that sound alike are called homophones. For example, bear and bare sound alike, although they are spelled differently.

Words that look alike but sound different are called homographs. An example of a homograph which affects psychology majors is the word "affect" which can be pronounced a-FECT, meaning cause, or AFF-ect, meaning emotion. Either type of ambiguous word, homophone or homograph, can be called a homonym -literally "same name." Humans interpret a homonym by using the context to select a meaning. A psychologist who reads, "The patient had a flat affect" will know to pronounce the word AFF-ect and will interpret this sentence as meaning "The patient showed little emotion."

How do people pick the correct meaning of a homonym?

If there is no helpful context, people pick the most common or personally relevant meaning of an ambiguous term. If you hear the word plane by itself you might think of an airplane. If you happen to be a carpenter, you might think of a wood plane. If you are a math major you might first think of a flat surface. If you live in Nebraska and you hear the word instead of seeing it, you might think of a grassy landscape (a plain). Your past experience biases your interpretation of this homonym toward one meaning or another.

Usually there is a context that helps us determine the intended meaning of a word. The surrounding words disambiguate (remove ambiguity from) a homonym.

What did the experiment with words snipped out of audio recordings show?

One experiment showed that words snipped out of audio recordings of spoken sentences could be identified with 90% accuracy only when accompanied by an average of six other words from the same sentence. For example, the sound "duh" might not be recognized as a sloppy version of "done" until preceded by "I won't give up 'til I'm..." Even five words might not be enough. "Won't give up 'til I'm done" might sound like "woki fupp tlam" until suddenly the clearly spoken word "done" makes the pattern click into place and you hear "I won't give up 'til I'm done."

What does the "Ream ember" example show?

Because context usually disambiguates homonyms quickly and subconsciously, we are unaware of how many unintended words are hidden in normal speech. Cole (1979) gave this example.

"Ream ember, us poke in cent tense all Moe stall ways con tains words knot in ten did."

This example shows that there are at least 18 unintended word sounds in the simple sentence, "Remember, a spoken sentence almost always contains words not intended." Yet if you speak that sentence to another person, that person will typically be aware of none of those extra 18 words. The context set up by the preceding words biases the listener toward conventional word interpretations.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey