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I am a theatre and neuroscience honours student at Dalhousie University. I will be writing weekly blog posts about the questions and ideas brought up in my third year psycholinguistics class.

Blog Posts[edit]

Post 1: Language and Thought[edit]

One of the more interesting questions we were asked in class this week was "can we think without language?" Personally I would say that we can although it is a tough one to prove. I think language helps to organize our thoughts and it can definitely influence our thoughts but it does not determine them. This question made me think of an experiment mentioned in first year where witnesses to a car accident had a different estimate of the speed of the cars involved depending on the phrasing of the question. A witness would estimate a faster speed if they were asked: “how fast was it going when it crashed?” And a slower speed if asked: “how fast was it going when it came in contact with…?” This is a pretty clear example of the power of language over thought. We also talked about whether a person’s perception of colour is limited by the vocabulary for different colours available in their language. We talked about comparisons between the Dani people of New Guinea and English speakers. I think an interesting study to complement what we talked about would be to look at whether all Dani people categorize colours the same way as each other and whether all English speakers categorize colours the same as each other. I would say that the categorization between Dani people would vary and that the categorization between English speakers would be pretty consistent. This is because most English speakers have been taught how colours are categorized whereas it is a new experience for the Dani who have only two words for colour.

Post 2: Speech Perception[edit]

This week we began to discuss how we perceive speech, the phonetic effects topic made it much more clear why children make some of the errors they do when learning to speak and read. I particularly found prosody interesting especially the fact that it is localized in the right hemisphere which is opposite to the hemisphere for language. I wonder if there is a connection between the prosody and autism. Specifically because if you have a right hemisphere lesion it can affect your ability to perceive prosody which means they are unable to understand language meaning based on tone of voice. Autistic people also have difficulty reading people and I was just wondering if there was an anatomical connection.

Post 3: More on Speech Perception and a bit on Reading[edit]

This week we dove a little further into how we actually hear speech and into what components of speech we actually need to understand it. We talked a bit about voice recognition programs and how they can be implemented and what there limitations are. Interestingly, a friend of mine just got a new Blackberry and he has found that all his voice mails are converted into text messages. I wonder how this is accurately achieved since it would not be possible to train the voice recognition system to recognize the voices of all callers. To my knowledge though it is accurate. I tried unsuccessfully to find a study that looked at the phenomena of increased visual acuity beyond the fovea in the direction of reading. Specifically, whether a person who is fluent in a language that reads left to right and and one that reads top to bottom would have the increased acuity both to the right and below their fovea. I imagine that they would assuming that it is an acquired phenomena. I suppose a way to answer that part of the question would be to look at illiterate people and see if they also demonstrate an increase in visual acuity past their fovea in the direction of reading.

Post 5: What is a Word?[edit]

We began this week with the question: "What do you know when you know a word?" Answers included meaning, pronunciation and grammatical context. We then moved on to discuss how the meaning of a word is not an absolute thing. Most words have different meanings depending on the context and also depending on the culture. What may have a perfectly obvious meaning in one culture may be total gibberish in another. In the article "What Euphemisms Tell Us about the Interpretation of Words,"[1] Beatrice Warren hypothesizes that there are two different meanings for a word. One is the dictionary definition which is the definition out of context and the second is the in context definition which is how the word is actually used. Our next topic which I found quite interesting was a bit of a discussion on whether or not euphemisms should be considered words. Examples were given from other languages where one word actually meant an entire sentence. The example being the word "manihlapinatapei" which is from the Fuengian language of Chili and means "a shared look of longing between parties who are both interested yes neither is willing to make the first move". This is interesting yes, but I personally do not think that euphemisms like "bought the farm" should be added to the dictionary. This is because it can also, in another context mean that someone actually purchased a farm which would make everything very confusing.

  1. Warren, B. (1992), WHAT EUPHEMISMS TELL US ABOUT THE INTERPRETATION OF WORDS. Studia Linguistica, 46: 128–172. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9582.1992.tb00833.x

Post 6: Discourse[edit]

Our final lecture before the break was on discourse. Again we began the talk with the question of "what is discourse?" Answers were things like: a conversation with the goal of exchanging information. We talked about the important role of memory but also how memory can distort what we actually hear because we are automatically making inferences based on our own experience. An example would be the creation of false memories which was demonstrated by the Bugs Bunny at Disneyland experiment. When we are told something we will also automatically fill in missing information with things we already know. This was shown with the story about Donald and his 3rd wife who went to Mario's for dinner. Once shown the story we were asked a series of questions none of which had actually answers in the text however we were all able to answer them confidently based on what we all knew about what happens when you go to a restaurant.

When we were talking about "partial processing" we were shown several misleading questions to demonstrate that people do not process all the information they are given and therefore often do not notice a conflict. An example of these questions is "how many animals of each sort did Moses put on the arc?". We were told that people often don't notice the fact that Moses is referenced rather then Noah. In a lab setting this is evidence of incomplete processing however in the real world mistakes like this are often made and people are often too polite to correct the speaker because they know what is meant. In the lab therefore, how do we know that the results are not just a polite habit that is hard to shake off rather then evidence of incomplete processing? People are just so used to silently accounting for other people's mistakes in order to keep a conversation flowing that they might accidentally start doing the same thing in the lab?

Post 7: Language & Music[edit]

Language and Music are two things that are very important to all cultures. They can both be used for emotional communication and personal expression. I would like to say right off the bat that I disagree with the statement that was made on one of the slides which stated that Music:

  • can generate infinite number of melodies according to rules
  • Everyone can perceive these as music
  • “musical” vs. “unmusical” cross-culturally

Specifically that the concept of musical versus unmusical is a cross culture phenomena. This holds up when you consider people within their own culture, however not when asking people to listen to music that is from a culture that is totally alien to their own. I say this only because I know I have heard "music" that I found hard to believe was considered music. In fact some aboriginal languages sound more like music then a language to a "western ear". I wonder if all those studies that were presented in class would have the same results if an unfamiliar culture's music were used instead of the subject's own. Western music revolves a lot around the idea of a melody but I know other types do not so I wonder if this would have any effect on the results?

I also found it really interesting that aphasics are sometimes able to sing what they want to say even though they cannot say it.

Post 8: Gesture[edit]

First off I wonder why research on gesture traditionally uses the Sylvester and Tweety cartoons. Is it because it was the cartoon everyone watched when gesture research took off?

I know I personally use gesture a lot when I speak. It helps me both add life to what I am saying and to help retrieve lost words. Often other people can guess what I am saying even if I cannot find the word I want through gesture. I've noticed that the public speakers who talk with their hands are usually the most interesting to watch, possibly because one is more involved if both the visual and auditory systems are actively engaged?

The fact that Italians use gesture more then us North Americans is also quite interesting. Is it because they are just more physically involved in what they are saying than we are? What other cultures are big gesture users? Another question is "do visual learners use gesture more?" I asked this question in class and it was pointed out that the visual learner category is more of an educational classification and is difficult to measure empirically. This makes sense, however if you performed a study that singled out individuals who use gesture a lot when speaking, one could then look and see if those same individuals also are visual or kinesthetic learners. It would make sense to me that they would be because gesture adds a physical component to speech.

Post 9: Development:[edit]

I found the case about Genie, the girl who was discovered at age 13 with no language because she was a victim of abuse to be particularly interesting. It is one of those cases that proves that language is something that must be taught and yet most of us learn it in the same fashion that we learn to walk, unconsciously. Even though Genie was eventually able to learn simple three word utterances, she never was able to grasp syntax. This suggests that it is not the ability to represent objects, actions or people etc. with words that is learned but the ability to organize those thoughts is? Genie's case shows us just how important talking to your kids for their development.

Post 10: Guest Lecture[edit]

This week we had a guest lecture from Linda Wozniak who works at the school of human communication disorders about aphasia. I found this lecture to be very interesting since it is the topic of my chapter. The videos she showed us were particularly interesting because no amount of reading will give you a full picture like seeing or working with an aphasic patient. I think it would have been fascinating to work with the couple where the husband had fluent aphasia and the wife was blind. Wernicke's aphasia is honestly quite hard to believe because it is had to imagine being in the position where you think you are speaking clearly but in fact you are not. I can imagine it is very difficult to accurately assess the extent to which such a patient comprehends information. If however the patient does understand speech, why can they not express themselves with gesture or other non language based methods of communication? To my knowledge, wernicke's aphasia affects a person's ability to produce language and can potentially not affect their comprehension. If this is the case, is it correct to think that the ability to use of gesture comes from the same part of the brain as speaking? Or is it that the patient just cannot transfer the information from an input to an output?

Post 11: Cochlear Implants[edit]

This debate was I felt the most interesting because it it a topic that is easily repeatable. I definitely feel that children with cochlear implants should be instructed in ASL as well as spoken language because if their implant were to fail they should not be left completely without means to communicate. In one of my other Neuroscience classes we discussed that fact that there are members of the deaf community who strongly oppose cochlear implants because they have the potential to destroy deaf culture. This is an interesting point because from the perspective of someone who can hear they seem like a wonderful invention and yet this case like many others are examples where scientific advancement is not always thought about from all angles.

Post 12: Thoughts on the Course[edit]

What I really liked about this course were the Wikiversity chapters and learning exercises because they are a great alternative to a final term paper. As an undergrad student you spend a lot of time working very very hard on lab assignments and essays that no one but your professor or TA will ever read. This is rather disheartening because after all that work all you have is a letter grade and a paper that you yourself will likely never look at again. With this assignment we got to be part of a bigger picture and got to create something that might be useful to someone we do not even know.

I also enjoyed the debates because they allowed one to focus and learn more about a topic that is somewhat controversial. However given the amount of work that goes into the debates, I think they should be worth more than 8% (plus 2% for peer evaluation)...

With respect to the lectures, it would have been nice to have some small assignments pertaining to the lectures because I personally find it difficult to motivate myself to pay attention to something if I do not need to remember it later. I know that in previous years such assignments were given which allowed the students to more fully understand the topics covered in lectures, Perhaps the blog posts could be cut? So what I am saying basically is that the Wikiversity assignments were great but I would have liked them to be worth less and other things like the debates and alternative assignments to be worth more. I know this would make more work for the students but I also think they would walk away with a more well rounded understanding of the course material.