The Study Of Perception Is Primarily Concerned With How We, Ap Psychology Chapter 6 Quiz Flashcards

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Dr. David B. Pisoni

Speech Perception Laboratory, Department of Psychology Indiana University of Bloomington, Bloomington, IN 47405 (USA)

Dr. David B. Pisoni, Speech Perception Laboratory, Department of Psychology Indiana University of Bloomington, Bloomington, IN 47405 (USA)

This paper reviews some of the major evidence and arguments currently available to support the view that human speech perception may require the use of specialized neural mechanisms for perceptual analysis. Experiments using synthetically produced speech signals with adults are briefly summarized and extensions of these results to infants and other organisms are reviewed with an emphasis towards detailing those aspects of speech perception that may require some need for specialized species-specific processors. Finally, some comments on the role of early experience in perceptual development are provided as an attempt to identify promising areas of new research in speech perception.

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Keywords: Speech perception, Synthetic speech, Identification, Discrimination, Species-specific acoustic signals, Perceptual development, Feature detectors, Perceptual constancy, Speech mode


The purpose of this paper is to briefly review some of the evidence currently available in support of the view that the perception of speech sounds may require specialized biological mechanisms. Evidence has accumulated rapidly over the last 30 years to suggest that speech is a special type of acoustic signal that has species-specific properties unique to humans. While the bulk of the evidence for this view has come from work on the acoustic analysis of speech and perceptual experiments with adults using synthetic speech sounds, more recent findings have been obtained with prelinguistic infants and animals. This work has expanded our knowledge of speech perception in a number of directions and has shown the value of comparative experimentation for the evaluation of species-specific behaviors, particularly those associated with acoustic signaling systems.

Before turning to the main arguments of this paper and the evidence to be discussed, it would be useful first to briefly review the role of speech in language. One of the essential ‘design features’ of all spoken languages is what Hockett <1958> refers to as ‘duality of patterning’. That is, at the message level all languages have two levels of representation, one consisting of the arrangement of meaningless elements (phonemes) and the other consisting of the arrangement of meaningful elements (morphemes or words). Differences between morphemes and hence differences in meanings are realized by variations in the sequencing and arrangement of the constituent phonemes and their features. The phonology of a language represents the sound patterning or structural arrangement of the phonemes whereas the syntax represents the rules for arranging and ordering morphemes and words.

Although the formal analysis of natural languages has been carried out for quite some time and a fairly good understanding of the message units exists, the same cannot be said for the analyses of animal communication systems. Indeed, knowledge of the message level is still a somewhat problematical question. The distinction between message units and sound units or segments should be emphasized here because much of the work to be discussed below tacitly assumes the existence of the phoneme as the smallest unit of linguistic analysis. And while the phoneme may not have physical reality as represented in current analyses of the acoustic waveform, it does have psychological reality in terms of the functional sound systems employed by natural languages. In studying animal communication systems that use vocal signals, an investigator is unfortunately faced with the problem of not having access to knowledge of the units and code appropriate to the message level and therefore must focus his attention entirely on the physically realized sound segments of the signal and their possible correlation to some observable response by the organism. This preoccupation with the physical realization of the message creates the obvious problem, in many cases, of failing to recognize the functional role that a signal plays in the communication system of an organism. With these preliminary remarks completed we can now turn our attention to relevant issues in speech perception.

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Human speech production imposes certain well-defined constraints on the resulting acoustic waveform. These constraints are derived from a consideration of the anatomy and physiology of the production mechanism and the associated resonant properties of the vocal tract <Stevens and House, 1955; Fant, 1960; Flanagan, 1972>. Although a good deal of work still remains to be done in understanding speech perception, there are a number of empirical findings which define the basic issues in the field of speech perception and set it apart from other related areas such as auditory psychophysics and general auditory perception. The nature of these problems form the basis, in part, for suspecting that speech perception may require the use of specialized mechanisms for perceptual analysis.

The research in speech perception may be described in terms of two general lines of investigation: (1) studies aimed at establishing the acoustic cues to the perception of speech sound segments and, (2) studies aimed primarily at demonstrating the effects of manipulating syntactic and semantic variables on speech perception. This contribution will be concerned primarily with research that falls into the first category. Three sets of findings will be discussed: (1) early research on the acoustic cues for stop consonants, (2) experiments on the identification and discrimination of speech and speech-like sounds, and (3) research on developmental aspects of speech perception in young infants. The material to be reviewed in these sections is quite selective in order to highlight some of the major problems and theoretical issues that have been studied in speech perception over the last few years and to see how these have influenced the kinds of theoretical approaches that are currently prominent in the field.

The study of speech perception differs in several important ways from the study of auditory perception and psychophysics. First, the signals typically used to study the functioning of the auditory system are simple, discrete and usually well defined mathematically. Moreover, they typically vary along only a single dimension. In contrast, speech sounds involve complex spectral relations that vary as a function of time; changes that occur in a single parameter often affect the perception of other attributes of the stimulus. Secondly, most of the research in auditory psychophysics over the last two decades has been concerned with the discriminative capacities or resolving power of the transducer and the peripheral auditory mechanism. In the perception of speech, the relevant mechanisms are, for the most part, centrally located. Moreover, experiments in auditory psychophysics have commonly focused on experimental tasks involving discrimination rather than absolute identification. This is rarely the situation of listeners when they perceive and understand speech. In fact, the listener must almost always attempt to identify, on an absolute basis, a particular stretch of speech. As a consequence, it is generally believed that a good deal of what we have learned from traditional auditory psychophysics is unfortunately only marginally relevant to the study of the complex cognitive processes that are involved in speech perception.

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In addition to differences in the signal, there are also marked differences in the way speech sounds are processed by listeners. For the most part, when people are presented with speech signals they respond to them as linguistic entities rather than simply as auditory events in the environment. Speech signals are categorized and labeled almost immediately with reference to the listener’s linguistic background. Moreover, as we shall see, a listener’s ability to discriminate certain speech sounds is often a function of the extent to which the particular acoustic distinction under study plays a functional role in the listener’s linguistic system. That is, speech sounds are interpreted by listeners as biologically significant acoustic signals which have an important functional role in the communicative process.


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