My son, Logan is now three years old and has been diagnosed with Childhood apraxia of speech (CAS). This is a motor speech disorder in which children have problems saying sounds, syllables, and words. These issues are due to his brain having problems planning to move body parts such as his lips, jaw, and tongue. Children with CAS know what they want to say but their brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words (Childhood Apraxia of Speech, 2015). The difficulties of dealing with apraxia have become a huge part of my every day life. In order to understand what my son is trying to communicate, I rely heavily on the context of the words he uses.
Phonemes and morphemes are components of words. Phonemes are the shortest piece of speech, which if changed, change a words meaning. Morphemes are the smallest part of language that has meaning or grammatical function. Phonemes are parts of sentences that can be heard even if their sound is covered up by noise. Sometimes Logan completely doesn’t pronounce letters in the middle of a word and I am able to identify what he’s saying due to the context of the word in a sentence. Since he’s an energetic boy, he might make noise in the middle of trying to communicate words and I’m still able to understand what he’s saying. This “filling in” of the missing phoneme is called the phonemic restoration effect, which is an example of top-down processing (Goldstein, 298).
Perceiving words can be a difficult task since not everyone says words in the same way. Different accents impact how easily words can be perceived. Logan typically mispronounces words to the point where he may as well be speaking a foreign language to me. Speed can also influence how well words are perceived. Sometimes Logan tries to talk so fast that the words seem to blend together, so I have a difficult time understanding him. Also, taking a relaxed approach to speaking can change the pronunciation of words. I try to be mindful of doing this myself, because I want Logan to learn to speak clearly. I often get lazy saying words, especially when they end in /t/. For example, in the word “out,” I might pronounce an abrupt “ou” without emphasizing the /t/ (Goldstein).
According to Irwin Pollack and J.M. Picket (1964), the way people speak conversationally is unclear about half of the time when words are taken out of context and said alone. Most of the time when Logan speaks to me, I rely on the context of the sentence. When he uses single words, I have a difficult time understanding what he’s trying to communicate with me without the word in the context of a sentence. This may not seem like a big deal, but if Logan says “ou” (without the /t/), I’m not sure if he’s hurt or is referring to going somewhere. However, if he puts the word into context, such as by saying, “go ou,” I would have a much clearer understanding of what he’s trying to communicate. This shows that a word’s meaning can depend on other words around it. When words are taken out of context from a sentence, people generally have a more difficult time identifying that word, even when they are hearing their own voice (Goldstein, 297-298).
Context plays a powerful role in understanding words. It affects the meaning of words and our ability to hear and understand words or parts of them. I may have a more difficult time understanding Logan due to an apraxia of speech, but I’m not alone when it comes to perception. Overall, everyone can have difficulties perceiving words that are complicated by accents, understanding those speaking at different speeds, and understanding others who take a more relaxed approach to pronouncing words.
Childhood Apraxia of Speech. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. 2015. http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/ChildhoodApraxia.htm.
Cognitive Psychology Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Goldstein, E. Bruce. p. 297-298. 2011. Third Edition. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.