Language and the mind: what can go wrong?

Language and the mind: what can go wrong?

It’s not just the Freudian slip: Kate Rykova looks at when speech goes wrong, and why.

From occasional verbal blunders that we are all guilty of, to language disorders that are few and far between – when does language become a source of embarrassment or difficulty?

Messing up the one word that matters in a conversation, or being unable to get out any words whatsoever, are casual everyday errors. Nevertheless, many of us would prefer to never deal with these mistakes again. At first glance, these awkward moments can be attributed to articulatory issues: meaning that the speaker knew what they had intended to say, but somewhere along the way, when the neural signals containing the intended message were being converted into acoustic ones, the speech chain broke down.

As speech is a combination of vocal fold vibrations (which produce sound) and the movement of articulators (like the tongue) within the oral cavity, neighbouring segments of speech (such as words) inevitably affect each other’s production. With this in mind, if the intended phrase requires the rapid movement of articulators from one position to another, the articulator may not arrive at the target position in time. The result? The produced speech segment will not be the intended clear speech one may have envisaged. If a person wants to get their sentence out faster, their speaking rate increases and with that, so do mistakes in articulation, as the level of precision required remains but the difficulty increases.

A lack of attention is another possible reason for various sorts of errors occurring in language, such as forgetting words. For example, if we had been daydreaming whilst learning new vocabulary – perhaps in a different language – the information might not have been encoded at all, which would result in the lack of its storage in our memory. It’s therefore unsurprising that at retrieval, when we are meant to masterfully remember the supposedly studied word, the mind goes blank.

But what happens when the mistakes are not words being forgotten or mispronounced but rather our own articulatory apparatus betraying us through slips of the tongue? Sigmund Freud, apart from being probably the most well-known figure in the history of psychology, was a distinguished psychoanalyst who famously demonstrated that no mistake is accidental, and that explanations such as the ones listed above are too superficial to fully account for all speech errors. Psychoanalysis is one of the approaches in therapy that centres on the link between repressed, unconscious sentiments and one’s behaviour. Through psychoanalysis, Freud found explanations for his clients’ linguistic slip-ups in conversation. His book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, covers various types of speech mistakes, with each chapter building on the idea that no slip of the tongue is accidental. In fact, these slips are subconsciously motivated by our desire to liken ourselves to the speaker (for example, if we like them as a person or are impressed with their work). On the contrary, we could be wishing to distance ourselves from them, or wishing to forget something purposefully on a subconscious level.

Language disorders, on the other hand, have a neurological rather than a psychological cause, and can be studied more extensively than lapsus linguae (literally ‘fault of the tongue’) due to the reoccurring, patterned nature of their symptoms. One of the most common disorders of language is aphasia, which can result from head trauma, a stroke or a brain tumour. There are two main types of aphasia, named after those that first described them: Wernicke and Broca, who also lend their names to the brain regions associated with each aphasia. The latter, Broca’s aphasia, results in difficulties with speech production, whereas Wernicke’s aphasia brings with it difficulties in speech comprehension. In reality, however, patients more often than not exhibit a combination of the two, as a lesion or injury rarely occurs in Broca’s or Wernicke’s area alone. It is by giving patients various linguistic tasks – for example, testing language comprehension and production separately – that speech and language therapists can deduce which abilities were affected and which have remained in each person, forming a more detailed individual patient profile.

Mistakes in language are not exclusive to speech – similar occurrences have been documented in users of sign languages. There are a whole variety of difficulties that can arise within language, whether the individual suffers from an actual language disorder or from unfortunate mistakes accompanied by otherwise typical language ability. The causes range significantly from psychological to neurological, just as the errors vary from predictable, grave disturbances to relatively unpredictable and infrequent speech slip-ups. Perhaps, next time you make a mistake in your speech- it’s worth considering why.


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