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We will never be able to speak as quickly as we can hear

We will never be able to speak as quickly as we can hear We will never be able to speak as quickly as we can hear
Source: artiste unknown via Pinterest
The Mother Tongue
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The Mother Tongue
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People don't talk like this, theytalklikethis. Syllables, words, sentences run together like a watercolor left in the rain. To understand what anyone is saying to us we must separate these noises into words and the words into sentences so that we might in our turn issue a stream of mixed sounds in response. If what we say is suitably apt and amusing, the listener will show his delight by emitting a series of uncontrolled high-pitched noises, accompanied by sharp intakes of breath of the sort normally associated with a seizure or heart failure. And by these means we converse. Talking, when you think about it, is a very strange business indeed.

And yet we achieve the process effortlessly. We absorb and interpret spoken sounds more or less instantaneously. If I say to you, "Which do you like better, peas or carrots?" it will take you on average less than a fifth of a second—the length of an eye blink—to interpret the question, consider the relative merits of the two vegetables, and formulate a reply. We repeat this process hundreds of times a day, generally with such speed that often we have our answer ready before the per-son has even finished the question. As listeners we can distinguish between the most subtle gradations of emphasis. 

Most people, if they are reasonably attentive, can clearly detect the difference between that's tough and that stuff between I love you and isle of view, and between gray day and Grade A even though the phonics could hardly be more similar. Sometimes, however, precise diction proves elusive, particularly when there is no direct eye contact. (It is remarkable the extent to which we read lips—or at least facial expressions.) Every newspaper person has his or her favorite story involving slipups resulting from misheard dictation. I remember once while working on an evening newspaper in southern England receiving a wire service story that made absolutely no sense until a correction was sent a few minutes later saying: 'In the preceding story, for 'Crewe Station' read 'crustacean.' " In a similar way, pilots long had difficulty in distinguishing between five and nine until someone thought to start using the more distinct fiver and niner. Germans, suffering a similar problem with zwei and drei, introduced the nonce word zwo, for two, to deal with such misunder-standings.

Despite these occasional drawbacks, listening is something we do remarkably well. Speech, by contrast, is a highly inefficient process. We are all familiar with the feeling of not being able to get the words out fast enough, of mixing up sounds into spoonerisms, of stumbling over phonetically demanding words like statistics and proprietoriak. The fact is that we will never be able to speak as quickly as we can hear. 
 

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