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.