Carol A. Fowler
The theory of speech perception as direct derives from a general direct-realist account of perception. A realist stance on perception is that perceiving enables occupants of an ecological niche to know its component layouts, objects, animals, and events. “Direct” perception means that perceivers are in unmediated contact with their niche (mediated neither by internally generated representations of the environment nor by inferences made on the basis of fragmentary input to the perceptual systems). Direct perception is possible because energy arrays that have been causally structured by niche components and that are available to perceivers specify (i.e., stand in 1:1 relation to) components of the niche. Typically, perception is multi-modal; that is, perception of the environment depends on specifying information present in, or even spanning, multiple energy arrays.
Applied to speech perception, the theory begins with the observation that speech perception involves the same perceptual systems that, in a direct-realist theory, enable direct perception of the environment. Most notably, the auditory system supports speech perception, but also the visual system, and sometimes other perceptual systems. Perception of language forms (consonants, vowels, word forms) can be direct if the forms lawfully cause specifying patterning in the energy arrays available to perceivers. In Articulatory Phonology, the primitive language forms (constituting consonants and vowels) are linguistically significant gestures of the vocal tract, which cause patterning in air and on the face. Descriptions are provided of informational patterning in acoustic and other energy arrays. Evidence is next reviewed that speech perceivers make use of acoustic and cross modal information about the phonetic gestures constituting consonants and vowels to perceive the gestures.
Significant problems arise for the viability of a theory of direct perception of speech. One is the “inverse problem,” the difficulty of recovering vocal tract shapes or actions from acoustic input. Two other problems arise because speakers coarticulate when they speak. That is, they temporally overlap production of serially nearby consonants and vowels so that there are no discrete segments in the acoustic signal corresponding to the discrete consonants and vowels that talkers intend to convey (the “segmentation problem”), and there is massive context-sensitivity in acoustic (and optical and other modalities) patterning (the “invariance problem”). The present article suggests solutions to these problems.
The article also reviews signatures of a direct mode of speech perception, including that perceivers use cross-modal speech information when it is available and exhibit various indications of perception-production linkages, such as rapid imitation and a disposition to converge in dialect with interlocutors.
An underdeveloped domain within the theory concerns the very important role of longer- and shorter-term learning in speech perception. Infants develop language-specific modes of attention to acoustic speech signals (and optical information for speech), and adult listeners attune to novel dialects or foreign accents. Moreover, listeners make use of lexical knowledge and statistical properties of the language in speech perception. Some progress has been made in incorporating infant learning into a theory of direct perception of speech, but much less progress has been made in the other areas.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
The study of second language phonetics is concerned with three broad and overlapping research areas: the characteristics of second language speech production and perception, the consequences of perceiving and producing nonnative speech sounds with a foreign accent, and the causes and factors that shape second language phonetics. Second language learners and bilinguals typically produce and perceive the sounds of a nonnative language in ways that are different from native speakers. These deviations from native norms can be attributed largely, but not exclusively, to the phonetic system of the native language. Non-native-like speech perception and production may have both social consequences (e.g., misjudgment of speaker mood) and linguistic-communicative consequences (e.g., reduced intelligibility). Research on second language phonetics over the past ca. 30 years has resulted in a fairly good understanding of causes of nonnative speech production and perception, and these insights have to a large extent been driven by tests of the predictions of models of second language speech learning and of cross-language speech perception. It is now generally accepted that the characteristics of second language speech are predominantly due to how second language learners map the sounds of the nonnative to the native language. This mapping cannot be predicted from theoretical or acoustic comparisons of the sound systems of the languages involved, but has to be determined empirically through tests of perceptual assimilation. The most influential learner factors that shape how a second language is perceived and produced are the age of learning, and the amount and quality of exposure to the second language. A very important and far-reaching finding from research on second language phonetics is that age effects are not due to neurological maturation that could result in the attrition of phonetic learning ability, but to the way phonetic categories develop as a function of experience with surrounding sound systems.
Patrice Speeter Beddor
In their conversational interactions with speakers, listeners aim to understand what a speaker is saying, that is, they aim to arrive at the linguistic message, which is interwoven with social and other information, being conveyed by the input speech signal. Across the more than 60 years of speech perception research, a foundational issue has been to account for listeners’ ability to achieve stable linguistic percepts corresponding to the speaker’s intended message despite highly variable acoustic signals. Research has especially focused on acoustic variants attributable to the phonetic context in which a given phonological form occurs and on variants attributable to the particular speaker who produced the signal. These context- and speaker-dependent variants reveal the complex—albeit informationally rich—patterns that bombard listeners in their everyday interactions.
How do listeners deal with these variable acoustic patterns? Empirical studies that address this question provide clear evidence that perception is a malleable, dynamic, and active process. Findings show that listeners perceptually factor out, or compensate for, the variation due to context yet also use that same variation in deciding what a speaker has said. Similarly, listeners adjust, or normalize, for the variation introduced by speakers who differ in their anatomical and socio-indexical characteristics, yet listeners also use that socially structured variation to facilitate their linguistic judgments. Investigations of the time course of perception show that these perceptual accommodations occur rapidly, as the acoustic signal unfolds in real time. Thus, listeners closely attend to the phonetic details made available by different contexts and different speakers. The structured, lawful nature of this variation informs perception.
Speech perception changes over time not only in listeners’ moment-by-moment processing, but also across the life span of individuals as they acquire their native language(s), non-native languages, and new dialects and as they encounter other novel speech experiences. These listener-specific experiences contribute to individual differences in perceptual processing. However, even listeners from linguistically homogenous backgrounds differ in their attention to the various acoustic properties that simultaneously convey linguistically and socially meaningful information. The nature and source of listener-specific perceptual strategies serve as an important window on perceptual processing and on how that processing might contribute to sound change.
Theories of speech perception aim to explain how listeners interpret the input acoustic signal as linguistic forms. A theoretical account should specify the principles that underlie accurate, stable, flexible, and dynamic perception as achieved by different listeners in different contexts. Current theories differ in their conception of the nature of the information that listeners recover from the acoustic signal, with one fundamental distinction being whether the recovered information is gestural or auditory. Current approaches also differ in their conception of the nature of phonological representations in relation to speech perception, although there is increasing consensus that these representations are more detailed than the abstract, invariant representations of traditional formal phonology. Ongoing work in this area investigates how both abstract information and detailed acoustic information are stored and retrieved, and how best to integrate these types of information in a single theoretical model.