Can we predict the future?

Have you ever been in a familiar situation where someone says something completely unexpected?  It can throw off the rhythm of the conversation, and often listeners will have to take a few moments to catch up (often with requests for the speakers to repeat themselves).  New language learners will often feel like this, as they are still learning all the standard responses in everyday situations.  It can be bewildering when a native speaker starts with a completely unfamiliar or unexpected set of phrases, and it would be really handy in these cases to be able to predict the future a little bit, so you could process the information and begin to prepare your own responses.

A recent study has shown that native speakers do actually do lightning-speed mini predictions when communicating with others. It supported existing theories that had supposed that the only way that people can keep up with speeds of up to five words a second in regular conversations is by narrowing down their range of expected responses to related words and words that begin with the same sound (e.g. kitten and kitchen).

For example, if someone says “I’m going to put dinner in the kit-“, our brains automatically predict ‘kitchen’ (based on the initial syllable and the context), and start forming a response.  If the speaker finishes with ‘kitten’, no doubt we will have a mental stumble and take a moment to absorb the unexpected information.

This helps to explain why non-native speakers of a language have an even harder time keeping up with native speakers talking rapidly to each other.  As we become more familiar with the language, though, we can begin to expect and predict conversations just like the locals do.

Full article on Eurekalert.

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