Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Oral typos and autocorrect by the unconscious: Another Duolingo note on learning Esperanto

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One thing has become clear as I get my sea legs in Esperanto: the person listening — the auditor — contributes as much to oral exchanges as the speaker. Far from being a passive recipient of the speaker’s words, the auditor (once s/he is familiar with the language) unconsciously corrects the spoken equivalent of typos just as the reader does with written text — a process so unconscious that it becomes difficult to spot some typos, since the adaptive unconscious autocorrects such errors and thus renders them invisible to the conscious mind — see a famous example at the right. (And that is why copy editors get — or should get — the big bucks: they can still see what’s really there, not just what should be there.)

Just as we unconsciously correct and read right over typos because we know the language well enough to know what should be there, so also once we learn a spoken language we don’t notice so much the inaccurate word choices (“de” when “el” is meant) or mispronunciations (“kay” instead of “kai” (rhymes with “sigh”)). Our ears carry the sound, our brain corrects the meaning. We may wince at a mispronunciation (“toomeric” instead of “turmeric”), but we know immediately what is meant.

A person who is just starting to learn English, on reading the word “resaerch,” will try to figure out what it means, searching dictionaries for the word in a vain attempt to find the definition, while a person who knows the language — and the context of the sentence — will read “research,” perhaps not even noticing the error. (Writers, who know exactly what they meant to write, are notoriously poor at proofreading their own written work.)

I’ve observed as I listen to Esperanto dictation on Duolingo the same sort of thing. Initially I was hypersensitive to the slightest mispronunciation, which stymied my effort to understand the meaning. As the neural net of my brain has become more trained (through repetition and correction), those mispronunciations gradually fade from my attention, since I now “hear” (in my mind) the sounds that make sense. In effect, I adjust what I hear to match the most likely meaning even when it means ignoring some of the actual sounds that were made.

This same phenomenon distinguishes phonemes that are very close in sound (think of the English “thy” and “thigh” — we have no trouble distinguishing them because our unconscious uses the context to help what we perceive ourselves to hear..

It’s similar to training an AI neural net to recognize cat pictures. At first the AI cannot tell the difference between a cat picture and a dog picture (or a cow picture, for that matter): a fur-covered four-legged animal with eyes, ears, a nose, and a tail: all much of a muchness. But with training — “No, not that one. Yes, that’s one. No. Yes. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. ….” — the AI soon is able to pick out cat pictures quite well.

Or an example from my own childhood: I still recall my mother in the grocery store asking me to get a head of lettuce (iceberg lettuce, all that we knew), and I came back with a head of cabbage. She laughed and showed me the difference, but I just couldn’t see it: they were both globes of green leaves, so how on earth could you tell them apart?

But experience — and neural net training — works and now I can pretty much distinguish cabbage from lettuce 9 out of 10 times, or even better.

What’s interesting is that my adaptive unconscious is learning Esperanto fast enough (daily practice of 2-3 hours now) that I can remember how some spoken sentences were unintelligible — and even had outright oral typos — now seem perfectly clear: because I now impose my own knowledge and understanding on what I hear and adjust to sounds to match what they should be.

Update: I overlooked the elephant in the room: the big contribution from the listener (as s/he learns the language) is the contribution of meaning, which is bigger and more important than the autocorrection of oral typos. There is no meaning in what hits the ear: that is just a bunch chopped up oral noises. For example, listen carefully to someone speaking, say, Basque and see what meaning you get from it. If you don’t know Basque, then you get from it no meaning at all. If you do know Basque, you get a lot of meaning, but the sounds alone do not contain the meaning — if the meaning were in the sounds, a Basque-ignorant person would get the meaning on hearing the sounds. A person who knows Basque and a person who does not both hear exactly the same sounds. One gets meaning, one does not. The difference is not in the sounds but in the listeners. The meaning is not in the sounds, but in the minds, that of the speaker and that of the listener.

Update again: And of the course the same is true of writing. The reader’s knowledge is a key factor in the writing being meaningful and not simply black marks.

이 구절은 명확한 의미를 지니지 만 독자가 표시의 중요성에 대한 지식을 제공하는 경우에만 가능합니다.

That has meaning, but not simply in itself. The reader must provide some of the meaning.

(I have a number of posts on what I’ve learned about using Duolingo effectively.)

Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 10:14 pm

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