Learning the reasons behind how and why people communicate is an extremely important part of our ability to communicate and understand intent. Both semantic memory and the production of language are integral parts of this intricate and complicated process by which we convey meaning to each other through verbal and written communication. In this paper, we will examine the varying aspects of semantic memory and language production as well as how they intertwine to form proper communication methods.
The Nature and Function of Semantic Memory
Semantic memory is the kind of memory that is used to assign meaning to the stimuli that is seen and heard. Without semantic memory, someone speaking is just another sound – however, it is understood that it is human speech and an attempt to communicate when one does have semantic memory. Two ways in which people obtain the data that inform semantic representations are experiential and distributional data. With experiential data, a person uses their past and experiences to inform future decisions – if someone burns hand on a hot stove, they know in the future that stoves can be hot. Distributional data, on the other hand, is the communication of knowledge and fact through spoken and written language (Andrews, Vigliocco, & Vinson, 2009).
The Moses illusion is a phenomenon in which people think they understand a sentence, but they do not. They would answer incorrectly to a question they knew the right answer to, assuming it is valid. (Shafto & MacKay, 2000) It basically indicates a sense of haste and inefficiency in semantic processing; people will not check their information completely within their own semantic understanding of the question before answering. Our minds ‘shadow’ important words to glean the most understanding out of the question or statement, focusing on those terms and weighing them against previous memory or education. At the same time, one can fool this process with things such as repetition of words that sound like the wrong answer, a lack of proper shadowing and confusion of proper nouns and terms, such as surnames.
The Basic Functions of Language
People use this as a communication tool to convey thoughts, feelings and actions between human beings. It is performed in a number of ways – verbally, through gesture, facial expression – and each individual understanding of language is often slightly different. Human beings attempt to structure both verbal and written language in the same way, so that they can be easily translatable and transcribable among both mediums.
Producing a language goes through a number of stages. First, there is the intended message, which is the statement or thought that the speaker wishes to convey. Next, the one encodes the message to linguistic form – the brain figures out how to communicate this thought or action in the form of words. The motor system encodes the linguistic form into speech, vocalizing the words through the mouth to form verbal communication. The auditory system of the recipient picks up the sound of the words, and the brain of the recipient decodes the speech into their own understanding of linguistic form. From this linguistic form, the meaning can be derived. (Vigliocco & Hartsuiker, 2002)
The Stages of Language Production
Accuracy and efficiency are two very important aspects of language production – the speaker should be able to exert both attributes when creating and expressing through language. Accurate language is found when the speaker creates the clearest picture that offers the most direct understanding by the other party of what the speaker is stating. Efficiency registers the ability to do this quickly, and with the fewest number of words or gestures. One can maximize accuracy and efficiency through a bidirectional flow of information, where both parties are communicating with each other as opposed to relaying news from one party to another. (Vigliocco & Hartsuiker, 2002)
Many people exercise the option to intentionally withhold facts that the recipient need not be privy to in their language production – this is known as minimalism. Maximalism, on the other hand, offers all information made available by the speaker, regardless of relevance to the subject at hand and lacking a great sense of organization. (Vigliocco & Hartsuiker, 2002) Luckily, in the case of maximalist communication, it is possible to help filter out the unimportant information with the help of weighting – the speaker uses emphasis and inflection to place different levels of importance (weights) on the words and ideas that are important to the situation at hand. This can make generalized chunks of information more reliable and understandable.
Relationship Between Semantic Memory and Language Production
Semantic memory and language production are very closely intertwined – one uses semantic memory to understand the world and shape one’s understanding of it, and language production supplies people with the ability to express them through language. Most language is stored in a lexicon of information in the brain, a virtual library of words and phrases as well as their meanings that the speaker can use to convey an idea or statement. (Jones & Mewhort, 2007) Although the two can often seem unconnected, as it is entirely subjective to connect words to meanings in a semantic sense, sequential dependencies between words can help the recipient of these words by better representing the ultimate meaning of the word. Learned behaviors, such as the teaching of language or figuring out what a word means, stays in one’s semantic memory as an experience that language connects to.
People assume that that “knowledge of a word’s meaning, knowledge of its lexical class, and knowledge of its grammatical usage are separate types of information involving different forms of representation stored separately” (Jones & Mewhort, 2007, p. 3). However, it is indeed possible to use different models of behavior to learn the meaning of words, combining the lexicon of human linguistic knowledge with semantic memory and experiential data. If one showcases the context and the sequence of a word at the same time, it is possible to store an ambiguous word that was not known before without needing to represent it in many situations.
In conclusion, semantic memory and language production are very closely linked – they are two essential steps in a vital process that allows human beings to communicate with each other, conveying a sense of purpose and meaning to their language. Both shared and individual semantic memory allows people to take the words they receive and assign meaning accordingly.
Andrews, M., Vigliocco, G. & Vinson, D. (2009). Integrating experiential and distributional data
to learn semantic representations. Psychological Review, 116 (3), 463-498. See the PsycARTICLES database.
Jones, M.N. & Mewhort, D.J.K. (2007). Representing word meaning and order information in a
composite holographic lexicon. Psychological Review, 114 (1), 1-37. See the PsycARTICLES database.
Shafto, M., & MacKay, D. G. (2000). The Moses, Mega-Moses, and Armstrong Illusions:
Integrating Language Comprehension and Semantic Memory. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 11(5), 372. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Vigliocco, G. & Hartsuiker, R.J. (2002). The interplay of meaning, sound, and syntax in sentence
production. Psychological Bulletin, 128 (3), 442-472. See the PsycARTICLES database.