Language is the archetypal human characteristic, and most English-speakers will find it easy to read this sentence and make sense of it.
Reading, however, is a complex activity that requires several types of analysis both of words and sentences.
- Visual analysis tells us that shapes represent a certain letter or word.
- Spelling analysis helps in finding possible mistakes.
- Syntactic analysis assesses whether a certain sentence is grammatically correct.
- Phonological analysis allows us to recognize the sound of the words and the way they are pronounced.
- Semantic analysis helps us understand the meaning of the words.
Reading a word
There are several factors that 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 more easily it can be identified. Models of the mental lexicon operate on a sorting system largely based on word frequency.
Furthermore, context and collocations (words that are often seen together) also help make reading easier. Reading the beginning of a sentence creates expectations about the words that should follow. In the sample sentence “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 assimilated at each step. These help us to understand the next sentence or paragraph. Our memory, however, cannot retain sentences exactly as they appear in a text; thus only the most relevant information needed to make sense of the text is 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 in order to extract and understand the global sense of the text.
In other words, the 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 along with our knowledge of elephant dietary habits, the word “elephant” comes as a surprise. Therefore, reading a statement evokes certain presumptions 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, reading and understanding a text is only one aspect of language and most of these explanations may be applied to producing and understanding speech.