This post is about two languages processes: production and comprehension. These may both be again subdivided by a) speech tasks and b) literacy tasks. In other words:
- Language production processes:
- Language comprehension processes:
Now, the fact that we can speak about these tasks as being divided this way does not mean that they are so divided in actuality. In fact, all current psycholinguistic research seems to say that these are simply two sides of the same coin: that is, these processes go hand-in-hand.
But let’s start at the beginning:
Speech is as old as our species and is found in all human civilizations; reading and writing are newer and less widespread. These facts lead us to expect that readers would use the visual representations that are provided by print to recover the phonological and linguistic structure of the message. Supporting this view, readers often access phonology even when they are reading silently and even when reliance on phonology would tend to hurt their performance.
This is nothing new. The importance of phonics for beginning readers is beyond well-established. Yet in many Tibetan language learning contexts, the link to phonology (in both speech production and listening comprehension) ends after learning basic alphabetic phonics and pronunciation.
Going back to our division of processes, then, we see that this method addresses a single aspect of language—reading comprehension—to the neglect of all production processes (speaking and writing) and all phonological processes (speaking and listening). This leaves students with a very myopic view of Tibetan’s linguistic terrain, to say the least:
- Phonological processes:
- Listening comprehension
- Speech production
- Orthographical processes:
- Reading comprehension
- Writing production
The evidence, on the contrary, says that phonology is actually an integral aspect to both reading and writing processes. This points to the conclusion that representations of the mental lexicon, whether they are accessed via phonology or orthography, are actually primarily stored phonologically. Phonology, therefore, is not merely key in the learning-to-read process; it is key to reading comprehension as well. Indeed, this conclusion is further supported by the fact that oral reading fluency is one of the best measures for reading comprehension.
This point on oral reading fluency (the ability to read fluidly, with proper intonation) directs us nicely toward another phonological feature of language: prosody. A reader who is unfamiliar with the natural rhythm of a language cannot access its prosody, an aspect that helps to resolve lexical and syntactic ambiguities in both speech and reading. Since Tibetan has so little punctuation with which to signal prosody, how can someone unfamiliar with the spoken language perform such essential (and basic) interpretive tasks?
Meanwhile, fluent readers of text must also access meaning at the level of discourse. Readers must make use of long-term memory to understand reference, relevance, and implication in order to understand how sentences are integrated into a larger causal structure by analyzing events in terms of goals, actions, and reactions.
These comprehension processes are built on automaticity and language experience; suffice it to say, the more language experience, the better one’s comprehension. Here, we are especially referring to non-linguistic language experience, or the environment of the language, where one is actively involved in interpreting contextual clues based on culture and situation: these become even more vital in text, as they are given subtly by language choice instead of concretely by context (think of how much easier second language listening comprehension is in person than on the phone—writing is even further removed by the subtraction of the prosody of speech).
With these factors in mind, then, we could say that language comprehension is related to language production in an educational context in the way that one has truly learned something when one “knows it backwards and forwards.” If I’ve just arrived at the movie theater and I’m asked to give directions to the supermarket, it will be extremely helpful if I have just walked from the supermarket to the movie theater: I may simply imagine walking the same route in reverse. Likewise, if I’m able to produce language (speak it or write it) I will be that much better prepared to comprehend it (hear it or read it).
In summary, phonological processes are an indispensable aspect of language learning because: a) the mental lexicon is designed to be accessed phonologically, even if one is reading; b) prosody is imperative to interpretive processing, and must be recreated by the reader; c) automaticity and speed must be developed for oral reading fluency, and these factorsdirectly affect reading comprehension at higher levels of sentence and discourse; and d) language experience also incorporates non-verbal aspects of language, which must be imaginable and predictable by a reader.
A few concluding remarks drawn from psycholinguistic research:
“The two processes of production and comprehension are carried out using the same representations and processes.”
“Language production’s impact on language comprehension is so pervasive that understanding production is essential to understand comprehension.
“Comprehenders are fundamentally affected by their experience of language”
“People use production processes to guide comprehension (and in fact use comprehension processes to guide production).”