Linguistic processing is making sense of language as it is being heard. The goal of linguistic processing is to transform the incoming language signal into a propositional model. A proposition model is a mental representation of all words that are recognized and how these recognized words relate to each other. Linguistic processing involves what are often referred to as “bottom up” operations: phonological organization, word recognition, and syntactic parsing.

Linguistic processing is all about intergration:  the integration of phonological, lexical, and syntactic elements. This integration happens very rapidly and continuously, and is not by any means a foolproof process because of the speed of the incoming signal. Estimates of normal speaking rate range in English (as in most languages) from 120 to 200 words per minute, or 120 to 600 syllables, or in some estimates, as many as 20 to 30 phonetic segments per second. Experiments with compressed speech suggest that comprehension can be successful at two to three times this normal rate (up to 400 words per minute), but comprehension even for a native listener typically breaks down beyond this speed.

Because of the time pressure in spoken language perception, any deficits or delays in linguistic processing will result in problematic comprehension of the input. For fluent L1 and L2 listeners, most gaps and inaccuracies in this bottom-up linguistic processing can be counteracted.  This counteraction, or compensation, occurs through “top down” semantic and pragmatic processes that are less dependent on perception of the incoming signal.

In most situations, except for those involving literal comprehension (such as following technical directions or noting specific number sequences), it is not necessary for a listener to process the input thoroughly at a linguistic level. If some pieces are input are bypassed, powerful inferential processes can assist the listener in attaining adequate comprehension or “situational comprehension”

About The Author

,  Linguistic Processing, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.