The ability to comprehend speech through listening may at first appear to be a simple task. When we consider the complex nature of speech perception, we find it is not so easy. It involves the acoustic cues being extracted from the signal. This signal then needs to be stored in the sensory memory and identified on to a map of linguistic structure. To understand this process we need to consider the stimulus presented and what factors play a part in how we perceive it. Considering the complexity and variation in the acoustic patterns produced by speech, we are reminded that while this process may appear effortless, our ability to recognize speech is the result of a complex speech perception system. While we can describe speech patterns in terms of frequency, we also need to look at the meanings these sounds convey when strung together into sentences, and the influence this meaning has on perception. Speech perception can be understood in terms of the interaction between top-down, knowledge based processing and bottom-up processing based on the incoming acoustic signal.
The sounds produced in speech are formed by patterns of pressure changes in vocal apparatus called the acoustic signal. The signal is created when the vocal apparatus changes pressure in the air that is released from the lungs. The vocal tract changes shape according to the movement of the articulators, including the lips, teeth and tongue. Understanding the act of speech production is an important to our understanding of speech perception.
Speech is made up of phonemes, syllables and words that are combined to form a stream of units. A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech that when changed, changes the meaning of a word. On their own they do not convey meaning, but when combined they form words. Our perception of phonemes is affected by context, how the phonemes are arranged in words changes the way in which they sound, however we perceive the sound as the same due to