large and small news about language

What is the most ubiquitous human social activity?  I vote for conversation (see my post from 3/30/14).  The ease with which we carry on conversing belies the complexity of the matter:  listening and understanding is complex, formulating and uttering our next contribution is complex, taking conversational turns is not simple,  and keeping it all on topic and relevant seems more than some can manage.  We rely on social formulas, e.g., how’s the weather & how’s the family, to facilitate quick exchanges and we give more thought to our serious discussions.   Highlighting the skill needed to participate is the rapidity of our exchanges; a conversational turn may take less than a second and even long-winded turns generally take only a few seconds.  Yes, some people go on for sometime, but their listeners generally remember something else they have to do and move on.  Conversational turn-taking is so natural we have to learn to inhibit it in order to become listeners.  I learned this watching preschool story time where the initiates kept speaking up in response, that is only natural to them, but they eventually with the help of good teacher learn to just listen and save their participation for later, a very interesting process to observe.

To lose the ability to participate is really difficult and frustrating, as I learned working with stroke patients.  Many others lose the ability due to nervous diseases that impair motor control.  They listen and think of responding but the words won’t come, so it is a large report that scientists have developed a way to translate the brain’s motor speech impulses that are blocked from enactment directly into computerized speech.  I marvel at the complexity of translating the specific nerve impulses for the speech organs, i.e., lips, tongue, jaw, pharynx, larynx, etc., into the phonemes and then assembling those phonemes into coherent speech.  This study shows that this can be accomplished in principle and now the hard slog to make this augmentative communication practical begins.  I saw this large story at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/health/artificial-speech-brain-injury.html.

The small story is from the 3/30/19 Science News about singing mice and duets. Who knew?  (Well, maybe Frans de Waal did—I just read in his new book about how mice communicate through high-pitched squeaks outside of our hearing range.  They ‘laugh’ when their tummies are tickled. That Frans de Waal is a tickling fanatic, see my post 4/8/16). Scientists found out that a species in Central America sing to each other and then they studied their brains as they did so.  They found that one neural area produces the song and another controls it for turn taking (hmm.  Sort of like our left hemisphere controls speech and the right manages the pragmatics of turn taking?)  They discovered this by using either cold or drugs to inhibit one area or the other. These ‘duets’ are better termed conversations, I think, and they are “carried out with split-second precision”. Oh, and if the turn-taking area is numbed, the songs grow longer.  Tell me about it.  Anyway, a small report of a finding that contributes to our understanding of the brains, the mice’s and ours, on the way to helping with communication difficulties.

With a large and small news report now posted, I will travel on.