In typical conversational interactions, humans are highly accurate perceivers of speech. We have little difficulty recognizing the sounds of speech and assigning a meaningful interpretation to sequences of speech sounds. Yet the problems that we encounter in some listening situations, such as difficulties hearing differences between sounds in a non-native language (sometimes even after years of experience with that language), hint at the complexity of perceptual processing. The complexity is also apparent when we consider the problems that speech researchers confront when programming computers to recognize human speech.
This course investigates how listeners extract a linguistic message from the input acoustic stream. The course begins by considering the nature of the acoustic signal, and how systematic acoustic variation structures the signal that serves as input to the listener. We will then turn to experimental work on speech perception that demonstrates that perceptual processing is not a simple one-to-one mapping between acoustic property and linguistic percept, but rather involves "decoding" the acoustics in ways that depend on phonetic context, the listener's native language, sociolinguistic factors, and much more. We will consider as well the dominant theories of speech perception and theoretical issues that have driven speech perception research for over 50 years, including the foundational question of whether speech perception differs from other types of auditory processing.
The course also introduces students to the relation between theory and experimentation, and to experimental design, in this cross-disciplinary field. This goal is addressed in two ways. First, we will read and assess the primary literature for a focus topic: the influence of linguistic experience on speech perception. Through this lens, students will get a detailed picture of how specific theoretical questions are translated into an experimental design, and how those results in turn lead to theoretical revisions and engender new questions. Second, the course will take a hands-on approach to the experimental study of speech perception. Students will participate in classic perception experiments in order to better understand the phenomena as well as the experimental methods. In addition, small groups of class participants will design and execute their own perception experiment.
Course requirements include a critique of an experimental study, active and informed participation in weekly discussions, collaborative contributions to the group speech perception experiment (including experimental write-up), and a final paper.
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