Interruptions in chatter not a laughing matter, says A&M professor
The speech teacher who chastised the occasional "uh" and "um" was off base. These fillers, restarts and reformulations actually serve as "windows into speech planning," according to Heather Bortfeld, a Texas A&M University psychology professor who studies the development of speech processing and production from infancy through adulthood.
These "speech disfluencies" (impairment of the ability to produce smooth, fluent speech) are actually helpful in constructing effective speech, said Bortfeld, who has worked with other specialists in the field to learn more about this typically overlooked aspect of speech.
Bortfeld, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M, currently is working with one of her graduate students to learn more about how infants tune to their auditory environment across the first year of life, examining how they adjust to their native language and how they attend to other aspects of their environment.
"Even though people don't think so, infants are listening to the language around them," Bortfeld said. "This shows that it is important that we include infants in our conversations, as well as take care about the things that we say around them, no matter how young they are."
Bortfeld said it is important to know that children's brains are malleable at an early age. When a child is growing up in a bilingual home, for example, their brain is tuning to two languages instead of one.
"It is not necessary to focus on one language or the other language; it just might take a little longer to reach fluency when a child is attempting to learn two languages," Bortfeld said. But the long-term payoff, in addition to being bilingual, is increased cognitive flexibility, she said.
Bortfeld's interest in this subject began with behavioral research with adults, but she currently uses a behavioral procedure designed for use with infants (the head turn preference procedure), as well as a neurophysiological measure (near-infrared spectroscopy) that measures changes in cerebral blood f low. Nonetheless, her work on adult language processing continues. "Language is interesting across the lifespan," Bortfeld said.
Bortfeld, who received a Ph.D. from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, has written a number of articles that focus on the language of infants as well as the language of adults who are both native and non-native speakers.