CHAPTER 10: LANGUAGE
Languages – flexible systems that use symbols to express many meaning.
One conclusion that has emerged from the studies of primates is that true verbal ability is a
Language plays a crucial role in our day-to-day communication, by we also use language as
a tool in our remembering and thinking. It also enables us to think about very complex and
abstract issues by encoding them as words and then manipulating the words according to
Linguists have studied the “rules” of language and have described precisely what we do
when we speak or write.
In contrast, researchers in psycholinguistics, a branch of psychology devoted to the study
of verbal behaviour, are more concerned with human cognition than with the particular
rules that describe language. Psycholinguists are interested in how children acquire
language and study how adults use language and how verbal abilities interact with other
Speech and Comprehension
Perception of Speech:
Speech does not come to us as a series of individual words; we must extract the words
from a stream of speech.
Recognition of Speech Sounds:
The auditory system performs a formidably complex task in enabling us to recognize
Like our ability to recognize faces visually, the auditory system recognizes the patterns
underlying speech rather than just the sounds themselves.
Using fMRI scans, Belin, Zatorre, and Ahad found that some regions of the brain responded
more when people heard human vocalization (both speech and non-speech) than when
they heard only natural sounds. Regions in which there was a large difference were located
in the temporal lobe, on the auditory cortex.
When it comes to analyzing the detailed information for speech, the left hemisphere plays
a larger role.
The analysis of speech usually begins with it elements, or phonemes.
Phonemes are the elements of speech – the smallest units of sound that allow us to
distinguish the meaning of a spoken word.
Voice-onset time – the delay between the initial sound of a consonant and the onset of
vibration of the vocal cords. Voicing is the vibration of your vocal cords. The distinction between voiced and unvoiced
consonants permits us to distinguish between /p/ and /b/, between /k/ and /g/, and
between /t/ and /d/.
Phonemic discrimination begin with auditory processing of the sensory differences, and
this occurs in both hemispheres. However, regions of the left auditory cortex seem to
specialize in recognizing the special aspects of speech.
Ganong found that the perception of a phoneme is affected by the sounds that follow it.
We recognize speech sounds in pieces larger than individual phonemes.
Phonemes are combined to form morphemes, which are the smallest units of meaning in
The syntax of a particular language determines how phonemes can be combined to form
morphemes. Ex: the word fastest contains 2 morphemes, /fast/, which is a free morpheme,
because it can stand on its own and still have meaning, and /ist/, which is a bound
morpheme. Bound morphemes cannot stand on their own and must be attached to other
morphemes to provide meaning.
Recognition of Words in Continuous Speech: The Importance of Learning and Context:
A special electrical signal called the N100 wave, appears shortly after people hear the onset
of a word. Sanders and her co-workers found that when people learned these nonsense
sounds as words (dutaba), they showed the N100 response – despite the fact that there we
no additional auditory cues to segment the string of sounds.
In addition to learning the units of speech, we also learn its content. Even though speech is
filled with hesitations, muffled sounds, and sloppy pronunciations, we are able to recognize
the sounds because of the context. Also we take advantage of context when reading as we
do when speaking.
Understanding the Meaning of Speech:
All languages have a syntax, or grammar. Syntax, like synthesis, comes from the Greek
syntassein, “to put together.”
They all follow certain principles, which linguists call syntactical rules, a grammatical rule of
a particular language for combining words to form phrases, clauses, and sentences.
Our understanding of syntax is automatic, we are no more conscious of this process than a
child is conscious of the laws of physics when he or she learns to ride a bicycle.
fMRI studies have shown that as syntax becomes more complex or ambiguous, our brains
become more active.
Apparently, the syntactical rules are learned implicitly. Later, we can be taught to talk
about these rules and to recognize their application (and , for example, construct diagrams
of sentences), but this ability is not needed to speak and understand the speech of others. Learning syntax and word meaning appears to involve different types of memory – and,
consequently different brain mechanisms.
Syntactical cues are signalled by word order, word class, function and content words,
affixes, word meaning, and prosody.
Word order is important in English. It tells us who does what to whom. However, word
order does not play the same role in all languages.
Word class refers to the grammatical categories (such as noun, pronoun, verb, adjective)
that we learn about in school. But a person need not learn to categorize these words
deliberately in order to recognize them and use them appropriately.
Words can be classified as function words or content words.
Function words – a preposition, article, or other word that conveys little of the meaning of
a sentence but is important in specifying its grammatical structure: a, the, to, some, and,
but, when, and so on.
Content words – a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb that convey meaning: apple, rug, went,
caught, heavy, mysterious, thoroughly, sadly.
Content words express meaning; function words express the relations between content
words and thus are very important syntactical cues.
Affixes are sounds that we add to the beginning (prefixes) or end (suffixes) of words to
alter their grammatical function.
Word meaning, or semantics, also provide important cues to the syntax of a sentence.
Semantics – the meanings and the study of the meaning represented by words. Semantics
comes from the Greek sema, “sign.”
Just as function words help us determine the syntax of a sentence, so content words help
us determine its meaning.
We can often guess at function words, which is fortunate, because they are normally
spoken quickly and without emphasis and are therefore the most likely to be poorly
The final syntactical cue is called prosody, refers to the use of stress, rhythm, and changes
in pitch that accompany speech. Prosody can emphasize the syntax of a word or groups of
words or even serve as the primary source of syntactic information. Prosody is extremely
important in language comprehension, because so much of our communication relies on
Relations between Semantics and Syntax:
Noam Chomsky, a noted linguist, suggested that newly formed sentences are represented
in the brain in terms of their meaning, which he called their deep structure.
Deep structure – the essential meaning of a sentence, without regard to the grammatical
features (surface structure) of the sentence that are needed to express it in words.
In order to say the sentence, the brain must transform the deep structure into the
appropriate surface structure: the particular form the sentence takes; the grammatical
features of a sentence. People with a language disorder known as conduction aphasia have difficulty repeating
words and phrases, but they can understand them. In other words, they can retain the
deep structure, but not surface structure, of other people’s speech.
Knowledge of the World:
Comprehension of speech also involves knowledge about the world and about particular
situations that we may encounter.
Schank and Abelson suggested that this knowledge is organized into scripts, which specify
various kinds of events and interactions that people have witnessed or have learned about
Script – the characteristics (events, rues, and so on) that are typical of a particular
situation; assists the comprehension of verbal discourse.
Once the speaker has established which script is being referred to, the listener can fill in
Brain Mechanisms of Verbal Behaviour:
Studies of people with brain damage and PET studies of people engaged in verbal
behaviour suggest that mechanisms involved in perceiving, comprehending, and producing
speech are located in different areas of the cerebral cortex.
Speech Production: Evidence from Broca’s Aphasia:
The neural mechanisms that control speech production appear to be located in the frontal
lobes. Damage to a region of the motor association cortex in the left frontal lobe (Broca’s
area) disrupts the ability to speak: It causes Broca’s aphasia, a language disorder
characterized by slow, laborious, non-fluent speech.
Broca’s aphasia – severe difficulty in articulating words, especially function words, caused
by damage that includes Broca’s area, a region of the frontal cortex on the left (speech-
dominant) side of the brain.
Although people who have Broca’s aphasia have great difficulty with speech, the vast
majority can say more than a single word.
Wernicke suggested that Broca’s area contains motor memories – in particular, memories
of the sequences of muscle movements that are needed to articulate words. Talking
involves rapid movements of the tongue, lips, and jaw, and these movements must be
coordinated with each other and with those if the vocal cords; thus, talking requires some
very sophisticated motor control mechanisms.
Damage to Broca’s area often produces agrammatism: loss of the ability to produce or
comprehend speech that employs complex syntactical rules. Ex: people with Broca’s
aphasia rarely use function words. Agrammatism – a language disturbance; difficulty in the production and comprehension of
grammatical features, such as proper use of function words, word endings, and word order.
Often see in cases of Broca’s aphasia.
In an ordinary conversation, Broca’s aphasics seem to understand everything that is said to
them. They appear to be irritated and annoyed but their inability to express their thought
well, and they often make gestures to supplement their scanty speech.
The agrammatism that accompanies Broca’s aphasia appears to disrupt patients’ ability to
use grammatical information, including word order, to decode the meaning of a sentence.
Thus, their deficit in comprehension parallels their deficit in production.
Damage to Broca’s area seems to affect a hierarchy of language functions, leading to
difficulty in sequencing the muscles of speech that produces articulation problems. At a
higher level would be the ability to sequence speech into appropriate grammatical
Speech Comprehension: Evidence from Wernicke’s Aphasia:
Comprehension of speech obviously begins in the auditory system, which is needed to
analyze sequences of sounds and to recognize them as words.
Recognition is the 1 step in comprehension. Recognizing a spoken word is a complex
perceptual task that relies on memories of sequences of sounds. This task appears to be
accomplished by neural circuits in the upper part of the left temporal lobe, a region that
has come to be known as Wernicke’s area.
Wernicke’s area – a region of the auditory association cortex located in the upper part of
the left temporal lobe; involved in the recognition of spoken words.
Wernicke’s aphasia – a disorder caused by damage to the left temporal and parietal cortex,
including Wernicke’s area; characterized by deficits in the perception of speech and by the
production of fluent but rather meaningless speech.
Symptoms of Wernicke’s aphasia are poor speech comprehension and production of
meaningless speech. Unlike Broca’s aphasia, the speech associated with Wernicke’s aphasia
is fluent and un-laboured; the person does not strain to articulate words and does not
appear to be searching for them. The person uses function words like the, but uses few
content words, and the words that he or she strings together just do not make sense.
People with severe Wernicke’s aphasia do indeed show poor comprehension.
Because Wernicke’s area is a region of the auditory association cortex and because a
comprehension deficit is so prominent in Wernicke’s aphasia, this disorder has been
characterized as a receptive aphasia.
Wernicke suggested that the region that now bears his name is the location of memories of
the sequences of sounds that constitute words. Wernicke’s aphasia, like Broca’s aphasia,
actually appears to consist of several deficits: the abilities that are disrupted include
recognition of spoken words, comprehension of the meaning of words, and the ability to
convert thoughts into words.
Recognizing a word is not the same as comprehending. Recognition is a perceptual task;
comprehension involves retrieval of additional information from long-term memory. Damage to Wernicke’s area produces a deficit in recognition; damage to the surrounding
temporal and parietal cortex produces a deficit in production of meaningful speech and
comprehension of the speech of others.
Brain damage that is restricted to Wernicke’s are produces an interesting syndrome known
as pure word deafness – the ability to hear, to speak, and (usually) to write, without being
able to comprehend the meaning of speech; caused by bilateral temporal lobe damage.
Although people with pure word deafness are not deaf, they cannot understand speech.
More significantly, their own speech is excellent. They can often understand what other
people are saying by reading their lips. They can also read and write, and sometimes they
ask people to communicate with them in writing.
Scanning of Text:
We do not perceive things while the eyes are actually moving but during the brief fixations
that occur between saccades (our eyes make rapid jumps, as we scan a scene).
Fixations – a brief interval between saccadic eye movements during which the eye does
not move; visual information is gathered during this time.
Readers are more likely to skip over short function words such as and or the than over
short content words such as ant or run.
Eye movements provide an excellent window into the dynamics of the reading process. As
we read a sentence, we analyze it word by word.
The less frequently a word occurs in normal usage, the greater the fixation time;
presumably, we take longer to recognize and understand unusual words.
The word that follows an unusual word does not receive a long