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.
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Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation
By Nicole Mahoney