Language production and comprehension

Published on May 18, 2010 Reviewed on May 1, 2020   34 min

A selection of talks on Neurology

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Hello, I'm Gary Dell from the Psychology Department at the Beckman Institute of the University of Illinois. How do we talk? How do we understand what others say? These are functions of the human brain. Notice that I say the human brain. No animal can learn to use language the way that people do. In this lecture, I'll tell you a bit about research on language production that is speaking and language comprehension with a focus on what may be happening in the brain when we use language.
Language is immensely complex. Nonetheless, it's rapidly produced and understood. Your active vocabulary has around 40,000 words, and when you speak, you have to choose from these words at a clip of about 2 to 3 a second. And so when you comprehend, you have to recognize those words at the same rate. That language production comprehension aren't just about words, there are about the ways that words are put together to represent meaning. Even when you say something is boring as, pass the salt, notice all of the things you have to get right. For example, you have to say the salt and not salt the, because in English nouns come at the ends of noun phrases. These are called the rules of syntax, even the pronunciations of words can change when they're put together. In most dialects of English, you pronounce T-H-E as the if the next word begins with a consonant, such as 'S' in salt. But you say "thee" if the next word begins with a vowel, such as pass the apple. These are called rules of phonology and every English speaker knows these things implicitly. But our ability to say pass the salt is not as interesting as our ability to say sentence is that we've never said before. When I was preparing this lecture, I said, I wonder why salt and sugar look the same. I've certainly never said or heard that before, so the creativity of our thoughts has to be matched by the creativity of the linguistic system to express those thoughts. And that's why using language is in many ways the crowning achievement of human cognition.