A new study from Oxford University suggests that they do so by using an unusual method—they suck it, then speak it out loud to themselves. The technique, which is known as ‘acoustical levitation,’ involves placing one’s head on a pot of water and speaking out loud and holding their tongue in place.
The findings suggest that the human tongue is capable of controlling airflow to produce language. Researchers found that while speaking, the tongue was able to exert air pressure on the sides and back of the mouth. The idea is that the tongue is able to “couple air resistance, vibration, and air pressure to generate speech sounds,” says Andrew King, a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychology.
The results, reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, offer new insight into how vocal languages, like English, may evolve; King says it suggests that people develop the ability to speak through a series of interactions, rather than just learning one language by listening to others. “The idea for years has been that people are taught languages through the interaction with other people. I think this is the first time that this notion has been examined systematically in a long period of time.”
Using a mixture of water and saliva as their vocal apparatus, acoustical levitation involves the mouth and tongue forming a membrane that restricts the airflow out of the vocal cords, causing the tongue to vibrate in response to the airflow. This action generates air pressure that acts like a brake on the air traveling through the mouth and nose.
The idea behind these findings is that air resistance in the tongue causes the tongue to become sensitive to how fast the air is blowing in, creating a kind of sensor. When the rate of airflow slows, the tongue becomes less sensitive, creating a loss in the ability to vocalize. King says it takes a lot of energy to create a tongue that vibrates, so he is now trying to understand more about how our tongue reacts to the wind speed and how it reacts to the pressure of our tongues.
Other studies have shown that the tongue does vibrate in response to temperature and other conditions. Some researchers have suggested that vibration or acoustical levitation creates language using vibration-stimulating chemicals that are found in our brains. That’s a nice idea, but is it possible this would just create a new language?
King says that it’s unlikely. “In normal speech, the tongue produces sounds that can be understood by other people. If you’re talking to yourself
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