The comparative perspective on spoken-language processing

Cutler, A. (1997). The comparative perspective on spoken-language processing. Speech Communication, 21, 3-15. doi:10.1016/S0167-6393(96)00075-1.
Psycholinguists strive to construct a model of human language processing in general. But this does not imply that they should confine their research to universal aspects of linguistic structure, and avoid research on language-specific phenomena. First, even universal characteristics of language structure can only be accurately observed cross-linguistically. This point is illustrated here by research on the role of the syllable in spoken-word recognition, on the perceptual processing of vowels versus consonants, and on the contribution of phonetic assimilation phonemena to phoneme identification. In each case, it is only by looking at the pattern of effects across languages that it is possible to understand the general principle. Second, language-specific processing can certainly shed light on the universal model of language comprehension. This second point is illustrated by studies of the exploitation of vowel harmony in the lexical segmentation of Finnish, of the recognition of Dutch words with and without vowel epenthesis, and of the contribution of different kinds of lexical prosodic structure (tone, pitch accent, stress) to the initial activation of candidate words in lexical access. In each case, aspects of the universal processing model are revealed by analysis of these language-specific effects. In short, the study of spoken-language processing by human listeners requires cross-linguistic comparison.
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