It’s not (just) what you say, it’s how you say it
How we pronounce a sentence can make the difference between making a statement or asking a question. By shifting the emphasis, we can indicate which aspects of the sentence are important. Mispronouncing a sentence can make it hard or impossible to understand—as you will know if you have ever had your computer read something to you.
We convey a lot of information with speech by the way in which we pronounce a sentence, by its ‘prosody.’ We all have internalized conventions about prosody, just like we have internalized conventions about what particular words mean and how they can be combined to form sentences. And languages differ dramatically in what these conventions are. Investigating prosody requires integrating insights from different disciplines, ranging from signal processing to modeling the meaning of prosody.
Dr. Michael Wagner, Canada Research Chair in Speech and Language Processing, tries to do just that. His main research tools are speech production and speech perception experiments that aim at a better understanding of three questions: (i) What information does a speaker encode in the prosody of a sentence? (ii) How is this information decoded by the listener when processing speech? And (iii) How do languages differ in their prosodic systems?
Wagner’s work will deepen our understanding of the human language capability, but it also has potential implications in a wide range of areas, including language instruction, speech therapy, improving comprehensibility of synthesized speech, and improving speech recognition systems.