Psycho Babble

Spelling and the Mind

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By Jessica Love


 

Just as scientists, with their empirical rigor, equations, and relatively solid funding, are often smug around their humanist colleagues, an unspoken competition exists among them to be the most empirically rigorous, most equation friendly, and best-funded researcher in the room. And so a quantum physicist lords her superiority over a marine biologist (the well-known saying It’s all just physics or stamp collecting is a particularly pithy summation of her view), who can in turn roll his eyes at those silly social scientists.

Even among the lowly of the lowly, psycholinguists, those studying the most basic processes (how, for instance, people are able to categorize individual sounds and letters) might tilt their noses up at those who study more complex linguistic processes. Such scientists, the thinking goes, build on more basic research by piling assumption upon assumption as if they were decorative pillows. Their work is very “soft” indeed.

Psycholinguists who study speech also tend to condescend a bit to those who study reading. Reading, many believe, is a less psychologically important process: it is less established in humans, less universal, and less naturally acquired.

These unstated hierarchies put studies of writing—a process at least as complicated as reading and even less immediate—solidly at the bottom. Psycholinguists who study writing, therefore, very rarely get their due, an unfortunate state of affairs because some of the work done in this domain is interesting and important. Take a very recent study, in which psychologist Sonia Kandel at the Université Pierre Mendès in France and her colleagues investigated whether or not people think for writing in the same way as they think for speaking.

As we prepare our lips and tongue and vocal tract for speech, we do so (at least some researchers believe) one syllable at a time. This is because any given sound is produced differently depending on which other sounds precede and follow it. For instance, the l that begins the word loving is formed differently from the l that ends the word baseball. (If we sounded out each letter on its own, without any consideration of what we’d just said and what was coming up, our speech would be not only slow but u-n-i-n-t-e-l-l-i-g-i-b-l-e to those around us.) Storing the necessary motor movements for each syllable in memory is easier, these researchers argue, than conjuring them up anew each time we speak. In order to speak using syllables, then, we must think in syllables.

Clearly the same constraints do not apply to writing. When written, a g is a g is a g, regardless of the letters that surround it, and so there is no need to plan one syllable at a time. Yet we do appear to plan in syllables, as evidenced by the finding that, for multisyllabic words, we’ll write the first letter of a second or third syllable more slowly and less fluently than the second letter of that syllable. (Researchers assume that these disruptions in fluency are likelier to appear at the moment when a task is most difficult; if we think one syllable at a time, we should be thinking hardest when transitioning from one syllable to the next.)

But what happens when the letters we need to write do not match the sounds that we hear? For instance, words like Wednesday and conscience are written as if they should contain three syllables, but pronounced with only two. Kandel and company asked 54 children in grades three through five to read words from a computer screen and, using a special pen, copy them in cursive onto a piece of paper attached to a handwriting digitizer. (The children were all native speakers of French, ostensibly because French syllable breaks are “highly predictable and clear,” but also probably because the researchers were themselves French. It may also be the case that no non-French children could be found who actually knew cursive.) Across all ages, the researchers found that disfluent movements followed the orthographic syllables (how the word was spelled, e.g., con-sci-ence) rather than the phonological ones (how the word was pronounced). In short, even third-graders, whose experience with speaking dwarfs their experience with writing, can already think orthographically! True, this finding is no Newton’s Third Law, and it doesn’t explain tool use in octopuses, but what kind of a bar is that to set? I say it is cool enough.

 

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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