Language Comprehension and Production Psychologists have long been interested in language. It was motivated by Chomsky’s work in linguistics, and by his claim that the special properties of language require special mechanisms to handle it. The special feature of language on which Chomsky focused was its productivity. Early psycholinguists described our comprehension and production of language in terms of the rules that were postulated by linguists (Fodor et al. 1974).

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As the field of psycholinguistics developed, it became clear that theories of sentence comprehension and production cannot be based in any simple way on linguistic theories; psycholinguistic theories must consider the properties of the human mind as well as the structure of the language (Fodor et al. 1974). Language comprehension, basically, is the ability to understand language. However, this ability is much more complex than it seems on the surface.

Language comprehension is more complicated than it might at first appear (Mark Ylvisaker 2008). Scovel claimed that understanding language, like producing it, is such an automatic task that it may appear to be a relatively straightforward process (1998: 50). Language comprehension develops along with the brain and is able to be enchanced with the use of gestures. Though it is unknown exactly how early comprehension is fully developed in children, gestures are undoubtedly useful for understanding the language around us. With time, comprehension may be able to be fully understood (Kelly et al. 2009).

Comprehension involves much more than just sounds, letters, and lexical meanings, it also involves the semantics of sentences. Psycholinguists first began to examine the comprehension of sentences by basing their research on the model of sentence grammar originally proposed by Chomsky in the 1950s. In comprehension of sentences is very important Automated Transition Networks (ATNs) which can be used to predict the next word or word sequence in any sentence which is spoken or written.

Scovel claims that ATNs have met with limited success, and this particular approach is not very popular, because it seems to be too simple to explain sentence comprehension on the basis of the single process of

Page 2 Language Comprehension and Production Essay

sequential prediction (1998:65). The easiest for all listeners and readers to make predictions about the meaning of a sentence is garden-pathing. Garden-pathing is such a natural comprehension strategy, we are unaware of it until it is interrupted, as it is unintentionally in poor writing, or intentionally in jokes or psycholinguistic research.” (Scovel 1998: 66).

Scovel claims, “The comprehension of words is much more complex than the processing of phonemes. It’s is indeed a very complex psycholinguistic process and one model that psycholinguists have adopted to account for this complexity is Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP)” (Scovel 1998: 55). The PDP perspective argues that we use several separate processes when we try to understand spoken or written language. Scovel claims, that these processes are used at all levels of linguistic analysis (1998: 55). A clear example of the usefulness of a PDP approach to the comprehension of words is an experience many of us encounter on an almost daily basis, what psychologists term the Tip-Of-the-Tongue (TOT) phenomenon (Scovel 1998). Psycholinguists have studied the TOT phenomenon. They discovered, that suddenly lost word is not always completely forgotten. Parts of the word are often subject to recall and, most commonly, these remembered fragments are the first letter of the first syllable (Scovel 1998).

The processes of speech production fall into three broad areas called conceptualization, formulation, and articulation (Levelt 1989). At the highest level, the processes of conceptualization involve determining what to say. These are sometimes also called message-level processes. The processes of formulation involve translating this conceptual representation into a linguistic form. Finally, the processes of encoding involve detailed phonetic and articulatory planning (Levelt 1989). The product of conceptualization is a preverbal message. In conceptualization, speakers conceive an intention and select relevant information from memory or the environment in preparation for the construction of the intended utterance.

The American psycholinguist David McNeill has gone on record with an interesting mentalistic account of how speech is first conceptualized in the human mind. His theory is that primitive linguistic concepts are formed as two concurrent and parallel models of thought (Scovel 1998). This is syntactic thinking, which shows the sequence of words which we typically think of when we talk about how language is developed, and imagistic thinking, which creates a visual mode of communication. McNeil’s claim that syntactic thought and imagistic thought collaborate to conceptualize conversation, is quite convincingly demonstrated by the way in which speech utterances and ordinary gestures seem to be tied and timed together in any conversation. Scovel said that although we know very little about how speech is initiated at this first stage of conceptualization, we have psycholinguistic evidence to help us understand the successive stages of production, so it is easier for us to describe and to understand Levelt’s second stage, formulation ( Scovel 1998)

We have seen the initial stage of conceptualization is so far removed from the words we actually speak and write that it is difficult to define this phase of production. At the second stage of speech production, we move close enough to formulation of the speech. Scovel has claimed “Conceptualization is hard to conceptualize, but formulation is much easier to formulate” (Scovel 1998). The psychologist Karl Lashley published one of the first attempts to account for the way speakers sequence strings of sounds, words, and phrases together so rapidly and accurately, and his essay was influential enough to be included in the first book ever published in English,which focused exclusively on then very new field of the psychology of language (Scovel 1998: 30). Karl Lashley talked about how common is to make spelling errors when one is typing, and he mentioned how he misspelled ‘wraspid’ with a w, while typing ‘rapid writing’, most probably because as he was about to type rapid, he anticipated ‘silent w’ in the following word (Scovel 1998: 31).

Over the past few decades, psycholinguists have become excited about a new way of discovering how we put words into our mouths: they look at what happens when we trip over our tongues (Scovel 1998). Slips of the tongue or typographical mistakes are normal occurrences for everyone both in speaking and writing. Scovel has claimed that slips of the tongue allow us to peek in on the production process because we know what the speaker intended to say, but the unintentional mistake freezes the production process momentarily and catches the linguistic mechanism in one instance of production (Scovel 1998:

The recognition of speech errors goes back more than a century. Scovel says that “Spoonerisms, like the unfortunate use of ‘ the breast in bed’ instead ‘the best in bread’, are named after the Victorian cleric and teacher, William Spooner, who used to make infamous slips in speech production. Spoonerisms are slips of the tongue in which an actual word or phrase is created, often with a humorous twist to the meaning which was intended” (1998:31).

The third stage of speech production, articulation, is also very important. This stage of speech production is similar to what happens when all the information selected by a word processing program goes from your computer to your printer. In fact, if the printer is not functioning properly, there is then no evidence that the message was ever even composed. It is the same with the production of speech. Scovel says, “ The conceptualization stage might perceive itself as the primary and ultimate composer of communication, and the formulation stage might pride itself as the conductor and orchestrator of speech sounds, but without the instruments of articulation, the music of our voices remains unhread and unappreciated” (Scovel1998:41).

Psycholinguists have developed a number of competing models to try to account for the complexity of speech articulation, and they have tried to employ various sources of evidence to peek into this complicated process, but much of the articulation remains a mystery. Scovel claims, “Despite the increasing sophistication of modern neurology and the development of techniques such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans to examine the way the human brain programs neuromuscular movements, we still have little understanding of how the cerebral software programs the anatomical printer to articulate sounds in such a glib manner” (Scovel 1998). Speech production does not end with articulation, however; the fourth and final stage of production is the process of self-monitoring.

Self-monitoring of action is important for smooth performance in many areas of human behavior. For instance, when we reach out to grasp for an object, we are able to monitor our arm movement and quickly modify the trajectory in case an obstacle is suddenly encountered. The most widely accepted monitoring theory (Levelt, 1989) suggests that monitoring proceeds through language perception, that is, speech error detection is primarily based on the parsing of one’s own inner and overt speech. Scovel claims that “ A self-monitoring stage presumes that people don’t just communicate with others, they communicate with themselves; they don’t just listen to others, they listen to themselves” (1998).

In this paper I have talked about language comprehension and language production in separate sections. In the first section I have talked about language comprehension which was divided into comprehension of sentences and words. The second section was about language production which has been divided into conceptualization, formulation, and articulation. In fact, the production and comprehension of language are tremendously complex activities. Speech production has been studied less than language comprehension because of the difficulty in controlling the input (our thoughts).

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