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Language is the archetypal human characteristic. Every day we use it both verbally in reading and writing, and orally to understand others and express ourselves. We will mainly focus on the cognitive processes involved in reading.


Analyzing words

Reading is a complex mental activity which requires several types of more or less automatic analyses of words and sentences:

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Visual analysis

The visual analysis enables a person to know that this shape represents this letter or that word. Whether a word is easy to read or not also depends on physical criteria. We are "trained" to read words with a specific physical shape (wrapping of the word). If this shape changes, reading slows down and reading the word "eLePHaNt" will thus be slightly disrupted.

Spelling analysis

The spelling analysis helps to finding possible mistakes

Syntactic analysis

The syntactic analysis discovers whether a certain sentence has a correct grammatical structure.

Phonological analysis

The phonological analysis leads to recognizing the sound of the words, or the way they are pronounced.

Semantic analysis

The semantic analysis finally helps in understanding the meaning of the words.

There are several factors which make it easier to read a word. Its frequency in a language plays a major role. The more frequent a word is, the faster and easier it can be identified. Models of the mental lexicon operate based on a sorting system like "word frequency".

Analyzing a text

A piece of text is read word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. In order to make sense of a text it is necessary to (temporarily) keep in mind the pieces of information that have been read at each step. They help understanding the next sentence or paragraph. Our memory, however, cannot retain sentences exactly as they appear in a text and only the most relevant information needed to make sense of the text is therefore retained. This information is then summarized. Non-relevant, redundant, and contradictory information is erased from our memory to avoid overload, and to extract and understand the global sense of the text. In other words, words we read are analyzed and organized to make sense. Important keywords are filtered and help us memorize the main message.

Importance of general knowledge

The reader's knowledge also contributes to understanding a text. Thus, if a young child reads the sentence "As he was walking through the woods, the boy was eaten by an elephant" and if he doesn't know that elephants are not carnivorous, he won't see anything wrong in this sentence. At the same time, an incoherent sentence requires to proceed to deductions based on our general knowledge. Reading sentences that are apparently unrelated such as, "The car was stolen. Paul has no money left." implicitly and automatically leads to the assumption that "all of Paul’s money was in the car". This occurs in order to make sense of the seemingly unrelated statements, even at the risk of extracting the incorrect meaning or intention. The understanding of a word within a context or with another word is another further factor that makes reading easy. Reading the beginning of a sentence creates expectations of words that should follow. In the sample sentence on "Little Red Riding Hood", the reader expects to find the word "wolf" rather than "elephant".

Written And Spoken Language

Take writing a letter as an example: We use and apply grammar rules but we also pay attention to spelling and try to find synonyms to avoid repetitions. In a conversation or when we are explaining something, we build sentences appropriate words according to the people we are talking to and to the circumstances. We then organize these words according to the grammar rules applicable to the language we are using.

In daily life

Language helps us understand and express ourselves both verbally and orally. It is essential for humans, especially to communicate with others. In order to understand a written text, our deductive and inductive reasoning skills allow us understand what is not explicitly written. So when you read the sentences "I took the clothes back inside this morning. They were soaking wet.", you understand that the clothes had been hanging outside to dry and that there was heavy rain that same night. This is what we call an inference, i.e. your reasoning skills help you move from one thought to another related thought.


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