New Research Investigates Comprehension of Speech 

Often assumed, but rarely understood, speech comprehension is a mystery

The idea of the capacity of human beings to comprehend language is a great mystery to the world at large, and even professionals have many unanswered questions. How do children become so proficient is speech between birth and say, age 3? How do adults, in some cases, become fluent in new languages in a matter of weeks?

A group of researchers at the University of Illinois recently set out to discover the brain activities that create this process, and how the brain guides itself to interpret words that follow one another in sentences. 

“Understanding spoken language involves an extensive and complex set of neural computations,” reads the abstract. “Central to these are the processes involved in semantic composition, whereby the meanings of words are combined into more complex representations, such as the combination of a modifier and noun (e.g., “green dress”) or, as in the current study, a verb and its direct object (DO) noun (e.g., “eat the apple”). 

“These combinatorial processes form the backbone of the incremental interpretation of spoken language, enabling listeners to integrate the meaning of each word as it is heard into a dynamically modulated multilevel representation of the preceding words of the utterance.”

For more on the research findings and methodology, visit the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ website.


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