Language is one of the most complex areas of human existence. Even more fascinating is the way our brain processes it. On our last quiz I had some difficulty with the issue of speech segmentation, and the physical energy of conversational speech. Amazingly enough, our brain tends to perceive speech in a “continuous flow”, and does not recognize pauses between words. While we may perceive these breaks via our auditory system, our brain recognizes them by several components. Familiarity with a language, meaning of the words, pronunciation, and context of the word in the sentence all aid our brains in identifying the spaces between words (Goldstein, 2011, p. 299). Due to our understanding of a language, we can generally fish out the separation between words. As we recognize a word, we can often formulate the cut-off between the next word begins. The way our brain processes sentences is truly astounding. Prior to reading the chapter on language, I never would have imagined our brains would process speech this way, mainly because I never really thought about how our minds accomplish this everyday task.
Anyone who has ever listened to or tried to learn another language can relate to the brain’s elaborate process of sorting out words. During my three consecutive semesters of Spanish and one summer course of German, I was convinced that the native speakers in the recordings were simply talking too fast for me to understand. I would often replay the recordings several times, picking out a few familiar vocabulary words, yet still finding quite a few to be unrecognizable. It was extremely difficult to differentiate between words because I was not familiar with the language or the context in which words were being presented. From my perspective, it seemed like the entire sentence could have been one long word! So it was not so much that I was hearing the sentence incorrectly, but more because my brain did not recognize the language, and thus could not space out the words. As I learned more vocabulary, I was able to discern between words and fill in the pauses to make sense of the statement’s structure.
To aid in the understanding of non-native languages, there are several plug-ins and tools that have been created to aid in speech segmentation and grapheme to phoneme conversions. One such plug-in, dubbed EasyAlign, translates text and word pauses by scanning a transcript (Goldman, J.P., n.d.). Another similar and widely available segmentation tool is distributed by Microsoft’s Hidden Markov Toolkit. Segmentation tools such as these allow non-native speakers to interpret audio sentences and text, so that the learner can easily understand sentence breaks and contexts (Goldman, J.P., n.d.)
Gaining a better understanding of speech segmentation, morphemes, and phonemes has allowed me to realize why learning a new language is such an arduous challenge. Not only does an individual need to learn new vocabulary terms, but also must process where pauses occur in sentences that were previously unfamiliar. Learning a new language is no small task, but dedication and review will eventually allow our brains to process the auditory or written information automatically, rather than just perceiving the sentence as one continuous word!
Goldstein, B. E. (2011) Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Belmont: Wadsworth.
Goldman, J.P. (n.d) EasyAlign: A Friendly Automatic Phonetic Alignment Tool Under Praat. Retrieved November 28, 2014 from http://latlcui.unige.ch/phonetique/easyalign/easyalign_unpublished.pdf