Monday, August 8, 2022

Psychology project examines language

April 17, 2001

If you ever wondered, um, why people, uh, have trouble understanding you, well so have some of MSU’s top psychologists.

Fernanda Ferreira, a professor of psychology, is researching the development of a theory into how people are able to understand the sentences we hear in the real world that are full of corrections, mistakes and disfluencies.

“The question I am interested in is how people, mainly adults, understand language,” she said. “Because when you break down what’s going on during the communication process it’s astonishing.

“The words in a speech stream come at us without pause but we are able to instantly recognize and group them while filtering out disfluencies.”

Disfluencies are sounds with no literal meaning but are apparent in human conversation such as “ers,” “ahs,” “uhs” and “ums.”

“We know that when people talk they do this,” Ferreira said. “What we are trying to do is get to the meaning of what people say and to explore how people understand sentences with disfluencies in them.”

People are much more likely to be disfluent before a complex chunk of material, she said. And researchers are looking at the possibility that these disfluencies effect the process of understanding a sentence in one way or another.

Karl Bailey, a cognitive psychology graduate student, has been collaborating with Ferreira on this project for nearly two years.

“If there were no errors or mistakes, understanding language would be easy,” Bailey said. “But the brain was built to process these disfluencies.

“And while they make it harder for the brain to process information in some cases, they make it easier in others.”

Therefore, in some cases, disfluencies can be used to improve verbal comprehension, he said.

Ferreira and Bailey are testing their theories on undergraduate student participants in a lab setting.

They ask test subjects questions with and without disfluencies to see what the differences in responses are.

“It would be nice to have a model of how people comprehend these disfluencies,” Bailey said. “Because it could really shed some light on a lot of the things people do in spontaneous speech.”

Neal Schmitt, chairperson for the Department of Psychology, said Ferreira’s work will contribute to the MSU scientific community in a meaningful way.

“Dr. Ferreira is very enthusiastic and her research is excellent,” Schmitt said. “Figuring out what kind of cognitive structures are involved in speech could vastly expand our knowledge of human communication.

“A better understanding of speech disfluencies and what can go wrong in understanding language could possibly lead to the development of a model to alleviate speech difficulty.”

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