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The costs and benefits of predicting words

Spoken language unfolds at a rapid pace, approximately 4-5 words per second. Have you ever wondered how listeners are generally able to keep up? A popular hypothesis is that people do so by anticipating what comes next, including which words come next. This anticipation, also called ‘prediction’, is thought to occur continuously, routinely, and implicitly. This means that it happens all the time, it does not require any conscious effort, and it happens even without someone trying to guess the next word. But why is prediction beneficial? This blog post explores the presumed benefits of prediction, but also its costs.

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If the Earth becomes Dune, how will we speak?

Have you seen Dune, a recent film directed by Denis Villeneuve? It is based on a famous novel by Frank Herbert about Arrakis, a desert planet, where water is extremely scarce. This affects not only how people on Arrakis behave, but also how they speak. Of course, Dune is fiction, but numerous studies show that the environment shapes human language in many profound ways. People living in the desert, mountains or forests tend to use different speech sounds, words and even grammars. 

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Why don’t we say what we really mean? 

When you think about it, the way in which we express ourselves is somewhat paradoxical. We have the words to say exactly what we mean, yet we routinely use them to express our thoughts in ways that are lengthy, complicated, that disguise our true motives or blur our clear intentions.

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Do words have meanings?

In my work, I study language comprehension. Intuitively, most people think that the solution to cracking language comprehension surely must be to figure out how word meanings are retrieved and how they are combined to form sentences. But do words actually have meanings?

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A miracle of migration: The invention of the alphabet

The news today is full of articles about immigration. The media often casts it in a bad light, but did you know that it was illiterate immigrants in ancient Egypt who invented a tool that over half of the world’s population still uses every day, one that rewired our brains?

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Settling an old debate: can words help us see letters more clearly?

Letters are more easily recognised when embedded in a word. We’ve all experienced this effect, for instance when navigating in bad weather: it’s easier to read a word or name (like a road sign) than a random string (like a licence plate). But why?

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All mistakes spread a light

“Once a time upon, was a village there … what?!! The chamberlain was shocked. He was the third jester that messed all the words up. Maybe there was something wrong at court? Witchcraft, for sure! He heard other people having insane conversations, with dogs chased by cats and adjectives used as nouns. There was no time to think, and the king had to be informed.

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Imagine an image without vision

What is an image? What a stupid question, you think. The answer seems clear enough! Open your eyes: what you see is an image (my living room, a burning candle, the bare trees at the top of the hill). But do we need vision to have images? What if we were born blind and had never seen anything?

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Did the dog bite the man or was the dog bitten by the man?

People sometimes fail to notice that the second sentence actually means the opposite of the first: our comprehension abilities may not be as good as one assumes they are. Research has shown that implausible sentences with more complex structures are sometimes misunderstood in favour of the more plausible option.

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