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Psycholinguistics studies the way in which operations of the mind make language possible. It is a cross-disciplinary field, drawing upon ideas and findings from areas such as cognitive psychology, theoretical linguistics, phonetics, neurology, discourse analysis, computer science, semantics, and education. It is especially indebted to the first of these, which provides many of its basic tenets and its research methods.
Specifically, the field explores the cognitive processes that underlie the use, storage, and acquisition of language. Affective and contextual factors are a concern only as far as they impact upon performance. Although psycholinguists recognize that language users are individuals possessing different linguistic repertoires, their main goal is to identify general patterns of behavior across users. Those patterns might reflect the capabilities and biases of the human brain or the processing requirements of the language under investigation.
Psycholinguistics has a relatively recent history. It did not come into its own as a subject until the early 1960s, when behaviorist approaches to the study of the mind lost favor. However, interest in related topics can be traced back to eighteenth-century diaries recording the language development of children, to nineteenth-century research on the location of language in the brain, to the introspective methods of Wilhelm Wundt’s psychology laboratory (established 1879), and to Francis Galton’s work on word associations.
Those who work in the field of language processing seek to identify the processes, often highly automatic, that underlie the two productive skills (speaking and writing) and the two receptive ones (listening and reading). Starting with the generation of ideas, accounts of language production allow for macro-planning at discourse level and local micro-planning in relation to the utterance about to be produced. The resulting plan is given linguistic form, which is stored in what is termed a mental buffer while the utterance is being produced.
Accounts of language reception recognize two stages. In decoding, the user identifies units of language within the input and builds smaller ones into larger. Current models represent the listener or reader as seeking potential matches at many different levels of representation (sound, letter, syllable, word) as well as relying on external cues provided by sources such as world knowledge or speaker knowledge. There were early suggestions that skilled readers and listeners spared themselves decoding effort by relying upon contextual cues. However, the key to skilled performance has been shown to lie in efficient decoding, which releases memory capacity and enables the reader or listener to give adequate attention to higher-level meaning.
Meaning construction is heavily dependent upon a process of interpretation. It requires the reader or listener to expand on the literal significance of the input by adding in what the writer or speaker appears to have left unexpressed. The user also decides on the relative importance of the new information, adds it to the meaning representation built up so far in the discourse, and checks for consistency.
Some language processing research relies upon observational data or upon introspective methods such as verbal report. However, the most favored approach is experimental. Importance is accorded to methods that tap in to processes on line, in other words, as they are occurring. There is a preference for parametric data in the form of, for example, the reaction times involved in carrying out a small-scale task such as distinguishing actual words from non-words.
A long-term area of interest has been the way in which vocabulary is stored in the language user’s mental lexicon. A word’s lexical entry specifies its spoken and written forms, its word class, its senses, and the way it participates in larger linguistic structures. There is uncertainty as to whether word-forming prefixes and suffixes such as un– or –less have their own entries. Current theory represents entries as interconnected within the mind of a user, with much stronger connections between those that frequently co-occur.
More recently, interest in storage has been extended to the ways in which sounds and grammar are represented in the mind. In conventional accounts, it tends to be assumed that sounds are stored as templates or prototypes against which variations can be matched, while grammar takes the form of abstract, internalized rules. However, growing evidence of the enormous storage capacity of the mind suggests that language users may retain precise records of the many utterances they encounter throughout their lives. Their ability to recognize sounds, words, and even patterns of grammar consequently derives not from generalizations but from millions of accumulated examples. On this analysis, the frequency with which strings of sounds and words are encountered is an important factor in the ease with which an individual retrieves them when they are needed. The premise is supported by evidence from computer modeling on connectionist principles, which has shown (so far in a limited way) that it is possible for a program to acquire a set of grammatical rules and exceptions by dint of exposure to repeated examples.
Language Acquisition (or Developmental Psycholinguistics)
Any discussion of how children acquire language is influenced by the long-running debate as to whether language is innate and genetically transmitted (a nativist view) or whether it is acquired wholly or mainly through exposure to the language of adult caregivers (an empiricist view). Early comments by the American linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) about the poverty of the stimulus (the uninformative nature of the speech samples provided to the child) have been challenged by analyses of child directed speech (CDS). Many child language researchers therefore adopt a neutral position or propose that language may be partly innate.
Research in this area falls into two broad traditions. One is theory-driven and adopts the assumption that linguistic descriptions of grammar correspond to actual mental processes. Drawing especially on Chomskyan accounts, this line of enquiry seeks evidence in children’s speech of universals of language, of common default values for certain features and of the adjustment of those values to match the target language.
A second branch is data-driven. It studies samples of child language, using the analytical tools provided by mainstream linguistics and discourse analysis. Researchers have formed conclusions about the way in which a child develops a phonological system, although the precise relationship between hearing and producing spoken words remains unclear. Vocabulary has been studied in relation to the words that are acquired earliest and to the rate at which the child’s knowledge increases. Especially important have been studies of how the child manages to construct conceptual categories such as flower or bird from discrete examples of the category. Studies of grammar have monitored the gradual increase in length of utterance and in the complexity of the syntax used and the concepts expressed.
The research method most favored in language acquisition studies consists of longitudinal observation based upon diaries or recordings. One outcome has been the assembly of a large international corpus of child language known as the Child Language Data Exchange System, or CHILDES. Researchers sometimes employ interviews with children to elicit specific linguistic items. Experimental methods have also been devised that enable a researcher to track the shifts of attention of a prelinguistic infant and thus to assess the infant’s ability to discriminate between different signals.
A very different area of acquisition research investigates the way in which learners master a foreign language. Psycholinguistic theory provides a framework for studying both the cognitive processes that lead to expertise in the target language and the additional cognitive demands imposed upon the second language (L2) user by unfamiliar phonology, lexis, and syntax. The concepts of attention, working memory, and automaticity have proved especially useful; and an understanding of L2 fluency has been enhanced by first-language evidence of how speech is assembled.
In recent years, all these areas of psycholinguistics have been assisted by technological advances, especially the advent of brain imaging equipment. Researchers can now monitor brain activity while a subject is undertaking a language processing task; the purpose being to discover which parts of the brain are engaged and at which stages. They can identify where different types of linguistic information are located within the brain. They can even track the processing taking place in the brains of prelinguistic children.
Recent neurolinguistic findings build upon a long tradition of research on language in the brain, going back to the nineteenth century. It was assumed then that language was lateralized to the left hemisphere for most language users and stored in two small areas, named after the researchers Paul Broca (1824–1880) and Carl Wernicke (1848–1905). However, modern technology has demonstrated that the right hemisphere also plays its part, handling larger-scale constructs such as intonation and discourse structure. It has also shown that language is widely distributed throughout the brain, relying upon massive neural connections for rapid transmission.
Loosely associated with the study of language in the brain are a number of other areas of enquiry. One explores the question of whether language is a form of communication peculiar to human beings; another, the question of how language evolved. Both consider the possibility that language owes its existence to the unique configuration of the human brain in addition to the evolution of the human vocal apparatus.
A final area worth noting is the contribution that psycholinguistics makes to an understanding of language impairment—both developmental impairment (manifested from infancy) and impairment that is acquired as the result of accident or illness. Psycholinguists concern themselves with the processes that contribute to dyslexia and dysgraphia, with aphasic symptoms produced by strokes, and with disorders of speech. Besides contributing to the work of clinicians, this research helps to shed contrastive light on normal language processing. Similarly, work on the relationship between language and other cognitive skills in conditions such as Down syndrome or autism provides insights into whether language is part of general cognition or develops independently of it.
- Aitchison, Jean. 1998. The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. 4th ed. London: Routledge.
- Aitchison, Jean. 2003. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon. 3rd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Brown, Colin M., and Peter Hagoort, eds. 1999. The Neurocognition of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Crystal, David, and Rosemary Varley. 1998. Introduction to Language Pathology. London: Whurr Publishers.
- Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton.
- Field, John. 2004. Psycholinguistics: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.
- Foster, Susan H. 1990. The Communicative Competence of Young Children: A Modular Approach. London; New York: Longman.
- Harley, Trevor. 2001. The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory. Hove, U.K.: Psychology Press.
- Lust, Barbara C., and Claire Foley, eds. 2004. First Language Acquisition: The Essential Readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Obler, Loraine K., and Kris Gjerlow. 1999. Language and the Brain. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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