We develop our language learning skills through speech models

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Looking at speech patterns throughout history, language processing is based on how often we hear sounds – causing a gradual change in language

Researchers studying changes in speech patterns and sound in the Middle Ages are expanding what we know about how we process language, by examining which parts of the brain alter our language learning.

The processing capacities of our brain show us that throughout history, our language is constantly changing.

Over the centuries, frequent speech patterns become more frequent, this development is due to the fact that our brain perceives, processes and learns frequently, which thus develops prototypical sound patterns more easily than less frequent ones.

“This second generation of speakers pass on a slightly modified language to their own children.”

The languages ​​of the past are very different from the languages ​​of today

Researchers from the University of Vienna have found that modern vocabulary and grammar, as well as speech sounds, are vastly different from languages ​​of the past.

The researchers evaluated more than 40,000 words of English texts from the High Middle Ages. They determined their vowel lengths using dictionaries or by taking neighboring sounds into account.

By counting the frequencies of occurrence of words with long and short vowels, the researchers found that most Middle English monosyllabic words had long vowels and only a minority had short vowels.

An example of their work on linguistic adaptation can be seen by studying the High Middle Ages, where the English word “make” was pronounced like “ma-ke” (with two syllables and a short “a” similar to the vowel in cut), whereas in the late Middle Ages it was pronounced “maak” (with one syllable and a long “a” similar to the vowel father).

Many Middle English words have lost their second syllable and lengthened their vowel as happened in the word make.

What was the reason for this lengthening of vowels in words that lost their second syllable?

Basically, people prefer speech patterns that occur frequently.

Theresa Matzinger, from the Department of English at the University of Vienna, said: “This means that when speakers pronounced monosyllabic words with a short vowel, these words sounded ‘strange’ and were not recognized clearly and quickly. by listeners because they don’t fit the prototypical sound patterns that listeners were used to.

“In contrast, words that matched the prototypical sound patterns with a long vowel might be processed more easily by the brain.”

Researchers describe language changes working like a telephone game, where over the centuries the ease of processing and learning monosyllabic words with long vowels has influenced the fact that more and more monosyllabic words have long vowels. .

This gradual change in language can be seen by the fact that our grandparents, ourselves and our children speak slightly differently.

Matzinger said, “You can think of the language change as a phone game. A generation of speakers speaks a particular linguistic variety. Children of this generation perceive, process and acquire frequent schemas of their parents’ generation more easily than less frequent ones and therefore use these schemas even more frequently.

“This second generation of speakers then passes on a slightly modified language to their own children. In our study, we showed that our brain’s general ability to preferentially perceive and learn frequent patterns is an important factor that influences how languages ​​change.

Overall, they noted that this process of learning and changing language, and adapting the speech pattern, occurs over many generations and over centuries – to a point where language can change so much. that past varieties are difficult for people to understand today.

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