Sound as it Moves Us

CATEGORIES: March 2017

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Contributed by: Dr. Charles Nagle

Dr. Charles Nagles is Assistant Professor of Spanish, and he works extensively with applied linguistics and teaching methods. To learn more about phonology from Dr. Nagle, check out his SPAN 352 course!
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As we produce and coordinate articulatory gestures, we constrict, compress, and channel the air moving out from our lungs in specific ways, generating acoustic events of varying shapes and sizes. Native speakers have an implicit understanding of the complex relationships linking vocal tract shapes to air pressure changes, and air pressure changes to acoustic events, which are subsequently organized into higher order units: sounds and words. Though complex and ephemeral, it is possible to perceive the physical reality of speech. For example, the relative timing of two movements determines whether we perceive a b as in bark or a p as in park. If our vocal folds begin to vibrate shortly after our lips separate, then we will perceive the word bark (at least in English). If the delay is more substantial, then we will perceive a p as in park. If you place your hand directly in front of your mouth and say both words, you will observe the physical phenomenon that these two timing relations produce. You will detect a slight puff of air as you produce the b in bark, whereas you will feel a more substantial burst on the p in park. Listeners read these acoustic events by decoding them into the original gestures that produced them. Not all movements are meaningful in every language. Consequently, as we learn to perceive and produce our native language, we also learner to filter out a certain amount of variation as noise, allowing us to perceive the intended gesture rather than the actual gesture in the same way we are able to group different images of a single object by recognizing the fundamental properties of that object. Learning to perceive and produce another language is difficult because we must learn to reprogram the subconscious linguistic patterns that we have acquired over a lifetime of native language learning and use.