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Language Skills

Language skills and cognitive functions

Language is the archetypal human characteristic and most people fluent in English will find it easy to read this sentence and make sense of it.

Reading, however, is a complex activity which requires several types of analysis of words and sentences.

  • Visual analysis enables a person to know that this shape represents this letter or that word.
  • Spelling analysis helps to finding possible mistakes.
  • Syntactic analysis discovers whether a certain sentence has a correct grammatical structure.
  • Phonological analysis leads to recognizing the sound of the words, or the way they are pronounced.
  • Semantic analysis finally helps in understanding the meaning of the words.

Reading a word

There are several factors which make it easier to read a word. Its frequency in a language plays a major role. The more frequent a word is, the faster and easier it can be identified. Models of the mental lexicon operate based on a sorting system like “word frequency”.

Furthermore, the understanding of a word within a context or with another word is another further factor that makes reading easy. Reading the beginning of a sentence creates expectations of words that should follow. In the sample sentence on “Little Red Riding Hood”, the reader expects to find the word “wolf” rather than “elephant”.

Whether a word is easy to read or not also depends on physical criteria. We are “trained” to read words with a specific physical shape (wrapping of the word). If this shape changes, reading slows down and reading the word « eLePHaNt » will thus be slightly disrupted.

Understanding Text or Speech

A piece of text is read word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. In order to make sense of a text it is necessary to (temporarily) keep in mind the pieces of information that have been read at each step. They help understanding the next sentence or paragraph. Our memory, however, cannot retain sentences exactly as they appear in a text and only the most relevant information needed to make sense of the text is therefore retained.

Thus, the sentence “Mary likes lollipops, fudge and chewing-gum.” can be summarized by “Mary likes candy”. Non-relevant, redundant, and contradictory information is erased from our memory to avoid overload, and to extract and understand the global sense of the text.
 
In other words, words we read are organized to make sense. A global meaning is then retrieved and adjusted into one central theme. The reader’s knowledge is also actively involved in understanding a text. In the “Little Red Riding Hood” example, given our knowledge of the tale and what we know of elephants’ diet, we are surprised when reading the word “elephant”. Therefore, reading a statement leads to presuming certain things that are based on our general knowledge.

Reading sentences that are apparently unrelated such as, “The car was stolen. Paul has no money left” implicitly and automatically leads to the assumption that “all of Paul’s money was in the car”. This occurs in order to make sense of the seemingly unrelated statements, even at the risk of extracting the incorrect meaning or intention.

Of course, understanding a text that has been read is only one aspect of language and most of these explanations may be applied to producing and understanding speech.