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National Science Foundation
Introduction
 
Speech Is Physical
Exploring The Interface
Language Learning
 
Language Change
Paths of Change
Endangered Language
 
Dialects
 
Sign Language
Examples
Classroom Resources
 
 
 

Speech Is Physical
Click on illustrations for more detail.
Illustration of the Anatomy of Language.
In the speaker (right), the brain controls all mental and physical aspects of speaking. Sounds begin as breath expelled from the lungs. On its journey to the mouth, the air vibrates as it is forced through the vocal cords. The mouth, nose and tongue modify this vibrating air to form sound waves. Facial expressions and gestures also play a role in communication. In the listener (left), sound waves enter the ear and are then analyzed into words by the brain.

Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

Humans are equipped with sophisticated machinery for producing and hearing speech. Speech is a physical activity involving both gestures (in the case of signed languages) and anatomical components such as the diaphragm, ears, vocal cords and such (in the case of oral languages). It is also a mental activity, involving the brain in all its complexity, such as the ability to decode, interpret and perceive. Researchers study all aspects of language and its perception—from the generation of speech sounds and their acoustical properties to how language gets processed by the brain.

The physical and mental aspects of speech are closely intertwined. In an environment full of sounds, the brain manages to discern and make sense of speech. Yet researchers are finding that our experiences with language can also alter the brain and shape how it functions. In fact, the first language we learn influences our perception of everything we hear later.

Today, researchers are uncovering new aspects of the physical and mental basis of language.

Click on illustrations for more detail.
Illustration of "The Brain as Controller". Click for larger image.

The brain acts as "command central" for language and communication, controlling both physical and mental components of speech.

Illustration of "Hearing Mechanics". Click for larger image.

On the receiving end of language, sound patterns entering the ear are amplified, sorted, decoded and finally recognized and processed as words.

Illustration of "Speech Production". Click for larger image.

On the production end of language, the brain triggers action by the diaphragm, lungs, vocal cords, nose lips and tongue which all work together to form words.

Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

By Nicole Mahoney

Language and Linguistics A Special Report