Saturday, January 9, 2010

When you speak, my brain speaks your speech for me

Okay, so what is a functional linguist doing reading Current Biology?
Not a lot, of course, but you find inspiration in the strangest of places. In a recent article, "The Motor Somatotopy of Speech Perception", D’Ausilio, Pulvermüller, Salmas, Bufalari, Begliomini, and Fadiga point out that our concept of perception of speech sounds - often considered a fairly passive process of understanding the inputs we all receive from the environment - needs revising. According to their very careful research, when we listen to someone speaking to us, we do much more than try to work out what they are saying. It seems that we are very active in the process. This may not come as a surprise to a lot of people - especially language teachers - but just how active has perhaps not been realised before. (Some people of course are not particularly pleased to hear these results, though). What D'Ausilio and colleagues have discovered is that, more than likely, as we listen, our brains implement the motor programs that are required to produce the speech we are listening to. That is, to put it simply, as you speak my brain is doing everything except physically articulate the words you are speaking. The time saved by not actually articulating and physically producing the sounds is roughly equivalent to the time necessary to comprehend speech. This suggests that a major part of the listening skill is speaking. Although this development is based on a very cognitive and neurological part of the comprehension process, it is similar to theories of understanding developed by the 'mirror neuron' theorists, such as Arbib and Rizzolatti. That is, the process of communication is not a simple one of Sender-Medium-Receiver. We are constantly in the process of making meaning, as we listen, as we speak, as we write and as we read. Listeners and readers do not play the role of trying to make their thoughts match those of the speaker or writer. They make their own meanings that, because of the conventions of the socially accepted rules of a language, bear resemblances to the meanings that the language producer was attempting to make.

The full article is available to subscribers at

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