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On July 20, 1969, an estimated 650 million people watched in suspense as Neil Armstrong descended a ladder towards the surface of the Moon.
As he took his first steps, he uttered words that would be written into history books for generations to come: "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind."
Media - Words
Or at least that's how the media reported his words.
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Armstrong - Step - Man - Fact - Transcript
But Armstrong insisted that he actually said, "That's one small step for a man." In fact, in the official transcript of the Moon landing mission, NASA transcribes the quote as "that's one small step for (a) man."
As a linguist, I'm fascinated by mistakes between what people say and what people hear.
Fact - Study - Speech - Armstrong - Quote
In fact, I recently conducted a study on ambiguous speech, using Armstrong's famous quote to try to figure out why and how we successfully understand speech most of the time, but also make the occasional mistake.
Despite confusion over Armstrong's words, speakers and listeners have a remarkable ability to agree on what is said and what is heard.
Thought - Words - Memory - Mouths - Sound
When we talk, we formulate a thought, retrieve words from memory and move our mouths to produce sound. We do this quickly, producing, in English, around five syllables every second.
The process for listeners is equally complex and speedy. We hear sounds, which we separate into speech and non-speech information, combine the speech sounds into words, and determine the meanings of these words. Again, this happens nearly instantaneously, and errors rarely occur.
Processes - Properties - Speech - Writing - Speech
These processes are even more extraordinary when you think more closely about the properties of speech. Unlike writing, speech doesn't have spaces between words. When people speak, there are typically very few pauses within a sentence.
Yet listeners have little trouble determining word boundaries in real time. This is because there are little cues —...
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