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HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2008 > Article Detail

FEATURE ARTICLE

Tip-of-the-Tongue States Yield Language Insights

Probing the recall of those missing words provides a glimpse of how we turn thoughts into speech and how this process changes with age

Lise Abrams

Figure 1. Having a word on the tip of your tongueClick to Enlarge ImageTip-of-the-tongue states arise when we know the word we're searching for but can't quite bring it to mind. People of all ages experience these frustrating states, but they occur with greater frequency as we age. In the hands of a cognitive psychologist, the tip-of-the-tongue state and its resolution provide insight into the way that human brains execute the processes that translate nonverbal concepts into spoken language. Finding a word that had been on the tip of one's tongue follows certain clues in the form of words—spoken, heard or simply thought—that share sounds with the elusive target. Not all same-sounding cues resolve these states equally well: As it happens, only the first syllable is helpful, and the cue word must be from a different part of speech than the target word. Furthermore, the response to cues changes with age, and older people are less likely to resolve their tip-of-the-tongue states when presented with a similar-sounding cue word from the same part of speech. These findings promise greater insight into the production of language and the means of creating environments for older people that best preserve their language skills and articulate self-expression.


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