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1.1 The Speech Chain

Regarding speech and communication, we usually consider first which


linguistic stages take place in the communication process. We
usually speak of the Speech Chain. But what is a speech chain? We
know what a chain is, and we now know what speech means. Well, the
speech chain is the process that begins when we think of what we want
to say and ends at the listeners understanding of the message. That is,
it begins at the production of the message and finishes at the
reception of the message. This is what language implies and it
includes a highly complicated series of events.

1) The first stage is what we are going to define as the stimulus. We


know that communication can only take place if there is a reason for
it. You can think of many reasons why you would like to say
something aloud, for example, your feet are cold, you have seen a
beautiful woman passing by, you feel thirsty, you are thinking about
the Democrat Party and want to share that opinion with someone, or
you want to answer a question, etc. All these events, ideas, feelings,
thoughts, necessities, etc. will many times provoke speech. This is
really the first stage in communication, and it is really a chain
because communication usually takes the form of a dialogue where
there are different moves or instances where speakers take place
and say something (monologue is very rare). And all these external
stimuli will provoke several reactions in the brain, as we will see.
2) The first and really linguistic stage of speech takes place in the brain.
Because the brain is part of our body we call this stage
physiological, although we may also say that it is somehow
psychological, or even neurological. All these terms imply
different perspectives of the same reality. We will not stop there as
we only want to know that there is a lot of activity going on in the
brain when we are actively participating in speech communication
(and in writing communication, too, of course). The purpose now is
that ideas are organized and, in a sense, translated into a pre-
established set of symbols. These symbols are nothing but the set of
sounds that are characteristic of each language. So, what is
happening at this moment is that the brain is giving a material shape
to an abstract entity, that is, changing an abstract concept/idea into a
sequence of fixed and identifiable elements that the speaker will
understand. For that reason, this process is also known as the
encoding process, meaning that abstract ideas are translated using
a code: a language is a code (very much like Morse Code). So, if we
are thinking of the idea of sitting (because we are very tired) and we
want to find something where we can bend our knees (sit) and rest,
we look for the word chair in our mind, and then we look for the
sounds that match that external reality, which in this case are the
following: /tSe/ . At this point we only have a mental representation
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of the sound we want to produce, the actual sound will not be


produced till much later. This stage we will call the production
stage.
3) The next stage involves the transmission of the message to the vocal
tract, where the sound will effectively be produced. That is why we
call this following stage the transmission stage. At the
transmission stage, the process that is being developed is also
neurological or physiological, as it involves the action of the
nervous system. This nervous system is in charge of transmitting the
message to the vocal tract.
4) The following stage is said to be articulatory or physiological. We
know that physiological means the action of part of our body (in this
case, the vocal tract), and we also use the term articulatory to refer
to the articulation of sounds. Articulation really means the different
positions that the different elements in the vocal tract can adopt: the
tongue or the lips, for example, can adopt multiple positions. This
capability is called articulation. This will, thus, be called the
articulation stage. This is the stage where sounds are really
created.
5) The movements of the organs will create different disturbances in the
air (the most frequent medium, although water is another possible
medium). These disturbances will affect air pressure, in other words:
the effect of the articulation is that the air particles will be affected in
terms of pressure and position. We call this stage the acoustic
stage. It is the moment for sounds to travel from the speaker to
the listener.
6) The alteration of the air particles is clearly perceived by the human
hearing apparatus. Each alteration will be received at the reception
stage. At this moment, the listener will activate a reverse process
from that of encoding: reception of the message, transmission
through the nervous system from the ear to the brain and decoding
of the message. To decode a message simply means translating the
sounds we have heard into abstract ideas. The reception stage is
nothing but the reflection of the production stage, as in a mirror.

Of course, the process will be repeated again and again. First, the
listener receives and then will possibly produce, changing his/her role
into that of the speaker, and again, and again.
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Figure no. 2: The Speech Chain (taken from Finch and Ortiz Lira (1982-
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Sender and recipient are many times used instead of speaker and listener.

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