So, as a person who looks mainly at the sounds of language, I tend to put a lot of faith in my ability to hear things. And you know what? Sometimes that faith is completely misplaced. My ears lie to me, and yours do too.
Well, it’s more accurate to say that your brain lies to you. I mean, your ears are simply there to receive the speech signal, like the antennas on an old TV. You still need a tuner to translate those signals into something meaningful, and in this really over-extended metaphor, the tuner is your brain.
And, sometimes, your brain will lie to you. There’s this thing called Phonemic Restoration that’s studied extensively by Makio Kashino, among other people. Basically, what happens is that even when a speech sound is missing you’ll think you heard it. Here, try this:
Isn’t that just the freakiest thing? And it gets even better. Not only can you gain sounds that were never there to begin with at all, you can also lose sounds that should have been perfectly intelligible. I was at a conference this weekend and one of presentations, by Chris Heffner, was on how you adapt to changes in speaking rate. Basically, if you’re listening to a bit of slow speech and then encounter a segment or set of words that’s produced much faster, your brain can’t handle it very well, so it’ll just skip right over parts of it, even if it leaves you with something that’s less than grammatical.
So why does this matter? Well, first off, it’s super cool. Secondly, knowing when and how your brain lies to you can tell us more about how your brain processes language. And, really, that’s not something we know a whole lot about. Linguistics as a field is littered with unsolved problems, like rocks waiting to destroy a perfectly good tiller. By learning more about what goes on between the antenna and the television screen, though, we can keep working to solve those problems.