Experimental Semiotics (ES) is a burgeoning new discipline aimed at investigating in the laboratory the development of novel forms of human communication. Conceptually connected to experimental research on language use, ES provides a scientific complement to field studies of spontaneously emerging new languages and studies on the emergence of communication systems among artificial agents.
ES researchers have created quite a few research paradigms to investigate the development of novel forms of human communication. Despite their diversity, these paradigms all rely on the use of semiotic games, that is, games in which people can succeed reliably only after they have developed novel communication systems. Some of these games involve creating novel signs for pre-specified meanings. These games are particularly suitable for studying relatively large communication systems and their structural properties. Other semiotic games involve establishing shared meanings as well as novel signs to communicate about them. These games are typically rather challenging and are particularly suitable for investigating the processes through which novel forms of communication are created.
Considering that ES is a methodological stance rather than a well-defined research theme, researchers have used it to address a greatly heterogeneous set of research questions. Despite this, and despite the recent origins of ES, two of these questions have begun to coalesce into relatively coherent research themes.
The first theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to acquire features that are similar to key features of natural language. Most notably, they tend (a) to rely on the use of symbols—that is purely conventional signs—and (b) to adopt a combinatorial design, using a few basic units to express a large number of meanings. ES researchers have begun investigating some of the factors that lead to the acquisition of such features. These investigations suggest two conclusions. The first is that the emergence of symbols depends on the fact that, when repeatedly using non-symbolic signs, people tend to progressively abstract them. The second conclusion is that novel communication systems tend to adopt a combinatorial design more readily when their signs have low degrees of motivation and fade rapidly.
The second research theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to begin systematically with motivated—that is non-symbolic—signs. ES investigations of this tendency suggest that it occurs because motivation helps people bootstrap novel forms of communication. Put it another way, these investigations show that it is very difficult for people to bootstrap communication through arbitrary signs.
The Japanese psycholinguistics research field is moving rapidly in many different directions as it includes various sub-linguistics fields (e.g., phonetics/phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse studies). Naturally, diverse studies have reported intriguing findings that shed light on our language mechanism. This article presents a brief overview of some of the notable early 21st century studies mainly from the language acquisition and processing perspectives. The topics are divided into various sections: the sound system, the script forms, reading and writing, morpho-syntactic studies, word and sentential meanings, and pragmatics and discourse studies sections. Studies on special populations are also mentioned.
Studies on the Japanese sound system have advanced our understanding of L1 and L2 (first and second language) acquisition and processing. For instance, more evidence is provided that infants form adult-like phonological grammar by 14 months in L1, and disassociation of prosody is reported from one’s comprehension in L2. Various cognitive factors as well as L1 influence the L2 acquisition process. As the Japanese language users employ three script forms (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) in a single sentence, orthographic processing research reveal multiple pathways to process information and the influence of memory. Adult script decoding and lexical processing has been well studied and research data from special populations further helps us to understand our vision-to-language mapping mechanism. Morpho-syntactic and semantic studies include a long debate on the nativist (generative) and statistical learning approaches in L1 acquisition. In particular, inflectional morphology and quantificational scope interaction in L1 acquisition bring pros and cons of both approaches as a single approach. Investigating processing mechanisms means studying cognitive/perceptual devices. Relative clause processing has been well-discussed in Japanese because Japanese has a different word order (SOV) from English (SVO), allows unpronounced pronouns and pre-verbal word permutations, and has no relative clause marking at the verbal ending (i.e., morphologically the same as the matrix ending). Behavioral and neurolinguistic data increasingly support incremental processing like SVO languages and an expectancy-driven processor in our L1 brain. L2 processing, however, requires more study to uncover its mechanism, as the literature is scarce in both L2 English by Japanese speakers and L2 Japanese by non-Japanese speakers. Pragmatic and discourse processing is also an area that needs to be explored further. Despite the typological difference between English and Japanese, the studies cited here indicate that our acquisition and processing devices seem to adjust locally while maintaining the universal mechanism.
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.