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Native Listening

Native Listening: Language Experience and the Recognition of Spoken Words

Anne Cutler
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 576
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  • Book Info
    Native Listening
    Book Description:

    Understanding speech in our native tongue seems natural and effortless; listening to speech in a nonnative language is a different experience. In this book, Anne Cutler argues that listening to speech is a process of native listening because so much of it is exquisitely tailored to the requirements of the native language. Her cross-linguistic study (drawing on experimental work in languages that range from English and Dutch to Chinese and Japanese) documents what is universal and what is language specific in the way we listen to spoken language. Cutler describes the formidable range of mental tasks we carry out, all at once, with astonishing speed and accuracy, when we listen. These include evaluating probabilities arising from the structure of the native vocabulary, tracking information to locate the boundaries between words, paying attention to the way the words are pronounced, and assessing not only the sounds of speech but prosodic information that spans sequences of sounds. She describes infant speech perception, the consequences of language-specific specialization for listening to other languages, the flexibility and adaptability of listening (to our native languages), and how language-specificity and universality fit together in our language processing system. Drawing on her four decades of work as a psycholinguist, Cutler documents the recent growth in our knowledge about how spoken-word recognition works and the role of language structure in this process. Her book is a significant contribution to a vibrant and rapidly developing field.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30545-7
    Subjects: Linguistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  4. 1 Listening and Native Language
    (pp. 1-32)

    A book about listening should really be spoken. The recurring themes of this book are how naturally and effortlessly we understand speech in our native tongue and how different listening to a nonnative language can be from listening to the native tongue. Speech would do these themes greater justice than print. The final conclusion of the book is that listening to speech is so easy (when it is easy), or so hard (when it is hard), because it depends so much on our previous experience of listening to speech. A printed text leaves such experience untouched; a spoken text would...

  5. 2 What Is Spoken Language Like?
    (pp. 33-72)

    What the listener has to do to understand speech is determined by the nature of the speech itself. Once we know what spoken language is like, much of what we need to know about what listening is like simply follows. There are four central properties of spoken utterances that are responsible for this, as section 2.1 lays out.

    The first point to make about speech is that it is fast. Even slow speech is fast, because it presents a great deal of continually changing information. Figure 2.1 shows the rate at which information arrives in a ten-second excerpt from a...

  6. 3 Words: How They Are Recognized
    (pp. 73-116)

    Speech contains more words than speakers intend it to, because words so often contain other words within them. Speech is continuous and word boundaries are frequently unclear, so the juxtaposition of words can create sequences that correspond to other words. As a result, the speech a listener is hearing may contain many spurious words that are just as well supported by the acoustic signal as the words that the speaker actually selected and uttered. This was the picture drawn in chapter 2. Now, we examine the consequences of this situation for the listener, as revealed in experimental evidence.

    The vocabulary,...

  7. 4 Words: How They Are Extracted from Speech
    (pp. 117-154)

    So far, we have shown that word recognition in continuous speech involves concurrent consideration of multiple candidates, all of them lexical forms that are fully or partially compatible with incoming information. We have seen that the resulting superfluity of candidates is resolved by competition. Evidence for this picture of spoken-word recognition comes from many languages, and there is nothing to suggest that the process itself is language specific. We assume that activation and competition form the universal architecture of human speech recognition.

    But that cannot be the whole story. The principal stumbling block is a logical one: Activation and competition...

  8. 5 Words: How Impossible Ones Are Ruled Out
    (pp. 155-190)

    Lexical activation and lexical segmentation, as reviewed in the preceding chapters, form a coherent account of the initial stages of word recognition. Universal and language-specific effects at this level likewise fit together seamlessly. We see that listeners make effective use of the probabilities that their language experience has led them to compute. As it happens, some of these probabilities are specific to their native language. But it is not necessarily the case that all are; many may well be universal. From the listener’s point of view, though, there may be no difference between probabilities that are universal versus language specific—...

  9. 6 What Is Spoken Language Like? Part 2: The Fine Structure of Speech
    (pp. 191-226)

    With a limited repertoire of articulatory gestures, speakers contrast tens of thousands of separate lexical entries. The resulting task demands of listening to speech were documented in chapter 2. Speech processing involves automatic simultaneous activation of multiple candidate words that are fully or partly consistent with the input, as well as competition between these candidates, with the competition modulated by probabilistically weighted segmentation and selection procedures. As laid out in chapters 3–5, these seem to be the processes that best meet the task demands.

    But the whole story of what speech is like does not finish there. For good...

  10. 7 Prosody
    (pp. 227-258)

    This is another chapter with a personal slant, because it was prosody that propelled me into crosslinguistic research. This book could thus be said to owe its existence to prosody. My dissertation research was not crosslinguistic, but it concerned prosody: the central issue was how stress and accent placement in sentences affected listeners’ comprehension (for the contemporary reports, see Cutler 1976a, 1976b; Cutler and Foss 1977). The problem with results of this kind for a psycholinguist is that they will not necessarily hold universally, because stress and accent are not universal. Of all dimensions of linguistic structure, prosody varies particularly...

  11. 8 Where Does Language-Specificity Begin?
    (pp. 259-302)

    Speech perception necessarily precedes speech production. It is tempting to think that babies’ use of language begins with their first spoken words, but as this chapter will show, it begins much, much earlier. It is only from about age one that little native speakers deliberately communicate with spoken words. At least half a year earlier, though, their speech production shows language-specificity. During the second half of their first year, infants’ babbling gradually takes on more and more of the typical phonological form of the input language—in phonetic repertoire (de Boysson-Bardies and Vihman 1991; Blake and de Boysson-Bardies 1992), in...

  12. 9 Second-Language Listening: Sounds to Words
    (pp. 303-336)

    No user of a second language needs to be told that it is harder to listen to and understand speech in the second language than in the first. There may be infinite gradations of language mastery, but as a rule of thumb, using any language first encountered after puberty presents difficulties unknown in the language(s) used since early childhood. Some of these problems arise in listening to spoken language, which brings them onto the terrain of this book.

    Languages learned in childhood are conventionally referred to as first language, or L1, and languages learned after puberty as second language, or...

  13. 10 Second-Language Listening: Words in Their Speech Contexts
    (pp. 337-374)

    Acquisition of a second language is sometimes necessary for survival, often the basis for a career, frequently motivated by love, and always, always useful. The practical value of L2 instruction has produced a huge literature. Much of it, naturally, concerns the beginning stages of L2 acquisition. But the goal of the L2 learner is to function in the new language. In some cases (migrant workers are usually cited here), a low level of L2 mastery may suffice. In other cases (students, executives in multinational companies), very high levels of mastery can be needed to achieve career goals. Listening skills then...

  14. 11 The Plasticity of Adult Speech Perception
    (pp. 375-410)

    Categorical perception, defined as the detection of minimal differences that distinguish words, has played a central role in the story so far. Forming new L2 categories presents a difficult learning challenge (see chapter 9). When the discrimination of categorical contrasts in L1 is compared with the results from L2, and the influence of L1 on L2 performance is considered, it is tempting to think that the categories of the L1 may be essentially fixed. But that cannot be a correct depiction of the real L1-L2 asymmetry. Recent findings suggest that the categories of the L1 should actually be viewed as...

  15. 12 Conclusion: The Architecture of a Native Listening System
    (pp. 411-450)

    Listening to speech feels like about the easiest thing we do, but the separate operations it consists of—such as segmenting a continuous stream of input into its discrete components, or selecting words from among a vocabulary extending into the hundreds of thousands—are, as we have seen, highly complex. The argument of this book has been that the efficiency with which these complex operations are carried out derives from the fact that they are, at all points, exquisitely adapted to the characteristics of the mother tongue.

    This process of adaptation begins in the earliest stages of listening, in infancy...

  16. Phonetic Appendix
    (pp. 451-454)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 455-458)
  18. References
    (pp. 459-532)
  19. Name Index
    (pp. 533-548)
  20. Subject Index
    (pp. 549-556)