Discussion: Language

From MIT Open Courseware – Introduction to Psychology:

Session Overview

How do I move meaning from my mind to yours? 


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: (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.

(PG Comment: This is a very short video. On PG’s computer, at the close of this video, YouTube starts another that doesn’t seem to be related.)

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?

. . . .


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 syntaxSemantics 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.

Link to the rest at MIT Open Courseware