Tongue twisters and language acquisition

Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

Every culture has tongue twisters. You know, “Sally sells seashells on the seashore.” Two of my favorites are: “unique New York” and “toy boat” — try saying either of those 10 times fast, I dare you.

But why and how does our tongue get twisted?

That’s part of what psycho-linguist Dr. Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel sought to figure out. She’s a researcher at MIT and she’s been studying tongue twisters.

During her studies, she’s identified some of the most frustrating English language tongue twisters. Now, she’s presented her tongue-twisted findings at the 166th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

Try this one on for size: “Pad Kid Poured Curd Pulled Cold.” Seems easy? Try saying it faster.

Shattuck-Hufnagel is specifically studying the different ways in which our language breaks down. She is trying to get a better picture of how we put together words. Certain tongue twisters seem to elicit different kinds of errors, she says.

“If you can figure out why speech of one kind elicits one kind of error, and speech of another elicits another kind of error, than you start to get some insight into the speech production process.”

That is, how we as humans take an idea and use sounds to express it.

Shattuck-Hufnagel hopes that what she learns about speech production will help scientists figure out how to assit people who suffer from aphasia or children with developmental speech disorders.

“I’m quite convinced [that], as we get better models, we will even be able to teach people second languages more effectively.”


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