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Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, and Language Processes: Interview with Lise Menn, PhD

Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, and Language Processes: Interview with Lise Menn, PhD

June 23, 2011 Interviews

Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, and Language Processes: Interview with Lise Menn, PhD

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, speaks with Dr. Menn about her new book, Psycholinguistics—Introduction and Applications, as well as cognitive processes, top-down compensation for bottom-up sensory deficits, language development, and more.

Academy: Good afternoon, Lise. Thanks for your time, today.

Menn: Hi, Doug. Thanks for your interest in the book!

Academy: Lise, I know you’re a professor emerita of linguistics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I’m curious as to when you earned your doctorate and when started your career at Boulder?

Menn: I earned my PhD at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and I started teaching in the Linguistics Department at the University of Colorado in 1986.

Academy: Excellent. Well, let’s start at the very beginning…what are the definitions and differences between linguistics and psycholinguistics?

Menn: Linguistics is essentially the science of describing language and includes many subtopics, such as phonetics (that is, the sounds of language), grammar, studies of formal and informal language and the situations that facilitate the particular words chosen, the changes in language and word use and vocabulary over time and more—so a good way to think of linguistics is the science you need to give an accurate description of a language.

Academy: Okay, got it. And so if linguistics is a description of language, what is psycholinguistics?

Menn: Psycholinguistics is quite different. Psycholinguistics addresses what is actually happening in our minds when we’re talking, listening, reading, and writing. Psycholinguistics is the study of how our minds understand, learn, and produce language and it involves speech, language, audition, cognition, psychology, neuroscience, and more.

Academy: A few moments ago, prior to initiating this interview, you spoke about the first 500 milliseconds, please explain that.

Menn: Well, I’ve been thinking if I ever write a popular book, something for the mainstream audience, I would call it The Magic Half Second. You see, within the first 400 to 500 milliseconds, a speaker can go from thinking about something to producing words in sensible sentences about it, and it takes about the same amount of time from when the sound waves hit the hearer’s eardrum to when the hearer understands pretty much what the speaker means. The whole process occurs without very much effort on the part of either party (assuming the two people have normal or near normal speech, language and auditory abilities)—and all of this happens so quickly—almost without conscious awareness of the communication event itself.

Academy: I agree. Actually, when you stop to consider the component parts and the vast opportunity for failures and for systems to not work properly—it’s incredible that anyone has normal speech, language and auditory abilities. And so, with respect to psycholinguistics, your book has an interesting discussion about the “the brain as a city.” Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Menn: Certainly. Some people think of the brain as a computer, capable of performing multiple functions simultaneously and at very high processing speeds—almost unimaginably fast. But the word “processing” makes us think of a food processor or a machine. However, simply referring to a computer or processor seems to not do it justice! So to me, the brain is much more like a city. You see, the brain takes sensory information and delivers it where it needs to go, essentially seamlessly and without much of a fuss. Some of the routes the information takes are quite direct and some are indirect. And then of course, we have intentional processing as we try to figure out accents or dialect or a new language, and we have automatic processing of familiar words and sounds, which occurs more-or-less below the level of consciousness, and then we have entire biological parallel processes going on simultaneously, too…such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration and more, all of which are merged, managed and directed (mostly without conscious thought) by the brain. It’s a lot of traffic!

Academy: Very interesting, thanks. And with regard to linguistic errors, would you please elaborate a little on mondegreens and malapropisms?

Menn: A mondegreen is a language error that happens when we misinterpret or incorrectly analyze the words to a song or a poem, often based on our own expectations, knowledge of the language and our own cultural or social biases. So these errors occur when we apply top-down processing to less than ideal perception of bottom-up sensory information. Of note, although we tend to think we’re analyzing “pure” bottom-up or pure sensory information, that’s actually impossible, as we have to interpret the stimuli for it to have meaning. One of the more famous musical mondegreens was from Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze.” Many people heard “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy.” According to the Web, the correct words were “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky”—but the sky is not something we usually think about kissing, and so our minds substitute something that’s more likely. And so perception is always the result of combined top-down and bottom-up signals and systems.

Academy: And please tell me the definition of malapropism?

Menn: A malapropism is a word mistakenly used in place of another word, where the two sound alike. So a student might hear a sentence such as “The sheriff had the power to deputize a posse for law enforcement.” If the student knew the TV show “Jeopardy” and didn’t know the word ‘deputy’ (or failed to connect it with what the teacher said), he might hear this as “The sheriff had the power to jeopardize a posse for law enforcement,” and even write down “jeopardize”. Another example is the sports-centered child learning about ESP who asks the librarian for books about “ESPN” because that term is more familiar to her.

Academy: And I believe malapropisms were the essence of the comedy routines by Norm Crosby through the last few decades. I recall the famous and somewhat embarrassing malapropism from Chicago’s past mayor, Richard Daley…."The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder." And of course, the Archie Bunker malapropism from “All in The Family” when he referred to a gynecologist a “groin-a-cologist.”

Menn: Yes. That’s the idea.

Academy: And it seems to me linguistics and psycholinguistics have a huge impact on auditory processing and auditory processing disorders.

Menn: Yes. Of course audition is much more your area of expertise than mine, but I do believe the stimuli used and the way the brain processes information will impact the results. When you hear a set of words, even very simple words, your mind can easily substitute words that sound the same or nearly the same, so malapropisms and mondegreens occur, and generally cannot be ruled out. Over a lifetime, we develop enormous skills at making as much sense as possible out of whatever we hear. So when a signal is faint or degraded by noise, we depend on our knowledge of language and the real world to interpret it, which means that normal people “hear” a lot that isn’t in the signal.

Academy: I agree. In fact, many of us in audiology have been advocating for many years that we should use non-speech-based tests for diagnostics with regard to auditory processing disorders (APD) exactly for that reason—to remove the linguistic bias which is intricately interwoven within each speech-based APD test and each person taking the test!

Menn: Well again, that’s not my area of expertise, but your point makes lots of sense to me. I think that what we really need is two kinds of tests—tests without language to test the purely auditory aspect of a disorder, and tests with language, to test the impact of that auditory disorder on a person’s ability to use language to communicate. Some people have the linguistic and cognitive resources to compensate in their daily lives for a fair amount of sensory deficit, but others will experience much greater disability with the same amount of sensory loss.

Academy: Very good. Lise, it’s a pleasure to speak with you and I really enjoyed your book. I think it’s a great reference and textbook for professionals in communication sciences. For me personally, it reinforced and updated many of the concepts I learned decades ago, and allowed me to put them in an improved and updated context and perspective – and particular chapters were actually a lot of fun to read!

Menn: Thanks, Doug. I appreciate your time and interest, too.

Lise Menn, PhD, is a professor emerita of linguistics and fellow of the Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Colorado at Boulder. She is also the author of Psycholinguistics—Introduction and Applications, by Plural Publishing.

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, Board Certified Audiologist, is the Web content editor for the American Academy of Audiology.

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