9.00SC | Fall 2011 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Psychology


Discussion: Language

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Session Overview

How do I move meaning from my mind to yours? This discussion session complements the Language lecture session.


Language is just incredible – think about how easy it is for us, as babies, to learn our native language effortlessly, and yet how hard it is, once we’ve already learned a language, to learn another.

I think about this every time I see a Chinese baby speaking perfect Mandarin. I have a master’s degree in linguistics and I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin for 10 years, but I’m just awful at it. And language is just spectacularly complicated in terms of our capacity for explaining things. There are sentences that you utter, or that friends utter, that have never been uttered before in the history of the human language, and that will probably never be uttered again, and yet they’re perfectly understandable.

We can talk about language in terms of signals for communication, that is, the perception and production of speech and sign, or what you have to do to move the message from one place to another. We can also talk about language as structures for information, or what the rules are that govern how the basic building blocks of language go together to convey meaning – including rules for sounds, words, sentences, and discourse.

In psychology, some of the big questions about language have to do with language acquisition (both as babies and as adults); the brain bases of speech and language; and communication and language disorders, such as aphasia and dyslexia. Language is a huge topic, but we’ll hit some of the highlights here.


Phonology is the structure of the sounds that make up the words of a language. Phonemes are the building blocks of speech sounds. Phonemes aren’t large enough units of language to convey meaning all by themselves, but they do distinguish one word from another. For example, bit and hit differ by one phoneme. English has about 45 phonemes altogether.

But think about two things. One, there’s a lot of sounds that we can make (whistles, coughs, snorts, etc.) that aren’t linguistic. Two, there’s incredible variety in how the people around us pronounce the “same” sound. Think about people speaking with different accents, or how you sound when you have a cold. How does the brain handle this?

Listen to Tyler describe and demonstrate the phenomenon of categorical perception: (MP3) (0:02:40)
(Includes recorded demonstrations of “bad/bat” and “slash/splash” courtesy of UCLA Phonetics Lab, used with permission. The original recordings, and many others like them, are available at Peter Ladefoged’s website Vowels and Consonants.)


However, we don’t rely on our ears alone to determine what we’re hearing. The McGurk effect is a famous example of how visual cues impact our perception of speech sounds. For this demonstration, you will play a single, five-second video clip three times, with different instructions each time.

First, play the video with your eyes closed. Make note of what the man is saying.

This video is from hmcnally on YouTube and is not provided under our Creative Commons license.

Second, play the video again with your eyes open. Now what is he saying?

Third, mute the sound on the video and just watch his mouth move. What does it look like he’s saying?

What do you think is happening in this situation? Why?

Sample Answer

This video was edited such that the man is really saying “ga ga ga ga,” but the sound is dubbed with “ba ba ba ba.” That’s why you hear “ba” with your eyes closed but see “ga” when the sound is off. The effect is that when you are faced with incongruent visual and auditory information, you perceive a phoneme that’s in between: “da.” That’s why you hear something like “da da da da” in the second condition when you’re both listening and watching. This demonstrates how vision and hearing are both involved in speech perception.


Consider the following joke:

A woman is taking a shower when her doorbell rings. She yells, “Who’s there?” and a man answers, “Blind man.” Being a charitable person, she runs out of the shower naked and opens the door. The man says, “Where should I put these blinds, lady?”

The use of the word ‘blind’ in this joke relies upon the particularities of English semantics and syntax. Semantics refers to the meaning of a word or a sentence; syntax refers to the rules for combining words into sentences. The word ‘blind’ has several meanings (it can be an adjective or a noun), and the one that comes to mind first for most listeners is ‘visually impaired,’ so “blind man” is at first understood as adjective + noun. However, the rules of English syntax allow us to interpret noun + noun phrases such as ‘ice cream man’ not as ‘a man made of ice cream’ but ‘a man who sells ice cream.’ It’s not until the punchline is delivered that you realize that it was a different meaning of ‘blind’ all along.

As you review the components of language, try to think of other jokes that rely on word play and describe how they work in terms of phonology, semantics, and syntax (warning: jokes may be ruined in the process.)

Think About

Is language unique to humans? Most pet owners believe they know exactly what their cats and dogs are trying to “tell” them through barking and scratching and purring. Of course, a number of researchers have tried various means of teaching language to primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees. Some animals have been taught to combine abstract shapes and even use sign language, but referring to these forms of communication as ’language’ has been controversial. What criteria would you say defines true language?

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Fall 2011
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