Language processing in the mind

Language Processing

This is Part 2 of my series of articles chronicling the process of auditory rehabilitation therapy from the perspective of a linguist. Part 1, Learning Linguistics; Relearning to Hear, can be found here.

The past few weeks of therapy have provided a number of interesting experiences. I’m not sure I can tie them all into a cohesive narrative, so I’ll just focus on one area: sentence processing as distinct from sound processing.

Filling in the Blanks

I am fascinated by how the mind processes language. Further, I’m fascinated by how we build up a sentence, and go from a series of sound waves to building meaningful words.

A common exercise in rehabilitation therapy is for the therapist to say a sentence with their mouth covered (so I can’t get anything from lipreading) and have me (try to) repeat the sentence. But an interesting thing happened the other week. Let’s say the sentence was The teacher talked to the students. What I heard was:

___ ___ ___ ___ ___ students.

But once I heard/understood students _I immediately could piece together the rest of what I had heard. If my therapist had stopped before _students, I would have said that I hadn’t understood anything. But since I could piece together the sentence after I understood the final word, it means I clearly got something from the words I thought I completely missed. Clearly my mind was storing those sound patterns as “something.” Were they candidate words, each with an assigned probability weight? And once I understood students, the probability weights crossed a critical threshold and formed a meaningful sentence.

This experience is distinct from a very similar experience I’ve had, which reflects the well-known concept of “priming.” In that case, a certain stimulus restricts the domain of possibilities, and influences subsequent responses. For example, on the first repetition of a sentence, I got:

___ ___ ___ a pie

So I knew the domain of the sentence was food, baking, etc. This made it much easier to get the other words when the sentence was repeated. Similarly, I’ve experienced a form of syntactic priming, where I understood the logical or functional structure of the sentence initially, mostly from prosodic cues. In other words, I got:


Upon repetition of the sentence, I could restrict the domain of each word to a noun, a verb and another noun, respectively. Not that it isn’t super cool that our minds can do this, but it’s not quite as mystifying as the first example.

In the first example, all of the processing occurred “on the fly.” I didn’t need a second repetition to understand the sentence, but rather backfilled it using some sort of semantic representations of word-forms, that initially I thought I had completely missed. But clearly some form of information was transmitted through those sounds.

All of this seems to be bundled under the rubric of sentence processing. I am fascinated by this process and the amazing things our mind naturally does, that my mind is currently relearning to do.

Stay tuned for Part 3, on relearning allophones.