Humanity excels in its command of language. Indeed, language is of such enormous importance to human cognition that this chapter and the following two are devoted to it. In this chapter, we will focus on the basic processes involved in listening to speech and in reading. For many purposes, it may not make much difference whether a message is presented to our ears or to our eyes. For example, we would normally understand a sentence such as, "You have done exceptionally well in your cognitive psychology examination", in much the same way regardless of whether we hear or read it. Thus, many comprehension processes are very similar whether we are reading a text or listening to someone talking.

However, speech perception and reading differ in important ways. In reading, each word can be seen as a whole, whereas a spoken word is spread out in time. Speech generally provides a more ambiguous and unclear signal than does printed text. When words were spliced out of spoken sentences and presented on their own, they were recognised only about half the time (Lieberman, 1963). Anyone who has studied a foreign language will remember the initial shock at being totally unable to understand the very rapid and apparently uninterrupted flow of speech produced by a native speaker of that language.

There are other significant differences. The demands on memory are greater when we are listening to speech than reading a text, because the words that have already been spoken are no longer accessible. So far, we have indicated ways in which listening to speech is harder than reading a text. However, there is one major way in which listening to speech can be easier than reading. Speech usually contains numerous hints to sentence structure and intended meaning via the speaker's pitch, intonation, stress, and timing (e.g., questions have a rising intonation on the last word in the sentence). These various hints are known as prosodic cues. In contrast, the main cues to sentence structure specific to text are punctuation marks (e.g., commas; semi-colons). These are often regarded as having the same function as certain aspects of prosody, but are often less informative than the prosodic cues in speech.

The fact that listening to speech and reading are quite different in some ways can be shown by considering children and brain-damaged patients. Young children often have good comprehension of spoken language, but struggle to read even simple stories. Some adult brain-damaged patients can understand spoken language but cannot read, and others can read perfectly well but cannot understand the spoken word.

Basic processes specific to listening to speech are dealt with first in this chapter, followed by basic processes specific to reading. Language comprehension processes common to listening and to reading are discussed in the next chapter.

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