Spoken words are highly variable. A single word may never be uttered the same way twice. As listeners, we regularly encounter speakers of different ages, genders, and accents, increasing the amount of variation we face. How listeners understand spoken words as quickly and adeptly as they do despite this variation remains an issue central to linguistic theory. We propose that learned acoustic patterns are mapped simultaneously to linguistic representations and to social representations. In doing so, we illuminate a paradox that results in the literature from, we argue, the focus on representations and the peripheral treatment of word-level phonetic variation. We consider phonetic variation more fully and highlight a growing body of work that is problematic for current theory: words with different pronunciation variants are recognized equally well in immediate processing tasks, while an atypical, infrequent, but socially idealized form is remembered better in the long-term. We suggest that the perception of spoken words is socially weighted, resulting in sparse, but high-resolution clusters of socially idealized episodes that are robust in immediate processing and are more strongly encoded, predicting memory inequality. Our proposal includes a dual-route approach to speech perception in which listeners map acoustic patterns in speech to linguistic and social representations in tandem. This approach makes novel predictions about the extraction of information from the speech signal, and provides a framework with which we can ask new questions. We propose that language comprehension, broadly, results from the integration of both linguistic and social information.
Keywords: speech perception, spoken word recognition phonetic variation, episodic lexical access, social weighting
Citation: Sumner M, Kim SK, King E and McGowan KB (2014) The socially weighted encoding of spoken words: a dual-route approach to speech perception. Front. Psychol. 4:1015. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.01015
Received: 21 August 2013; Accepted: 23 December 2013;
Published online: 09 January 2014.
Edited by:Sonja A. E. Kotz, Max Planck Institute Leipzig, Germany
Reviewed by:Ariel M. Cohen-Goldberg, Tufts University, USA
Copyright © 2014 Sumner, Kim, King and McGowan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.
*Correspondence: Meghan Sumner, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460, Stanford, CA 94305-2150, USA e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org