The way we communicate through speech (and signs) distinguishes us from all other known species. Humans are born with a linguistic biological system in which the brain interacts with other parts of the body to carry out speech. The uniqueness of this system is characterized by the ‘properties’ of human language. For instance, think about the fact that humans are wired with a need to talk to each other, not only concerning immediate needs, but also to discuss past and future events and prospects. This ‘Theory of Mind‘ refers to the fact that we are able to distinguish ourselves from other human beings, recognizing that each individual possesses his/her own state of mind. This is not so with animals. Humans, as a species, are born with highly intricate hearing and speaking apparatus that are specifically built to ‘do’ language. This is not so with animals. Humans have the capacity to utter an unlimited amount of sentences. In other words, language learning does not consist of memorizing a list of all the possible sentences in a language. And this ability to create an infinite number of sentences is affected by the specific rules that each language stipulates about how sentences can be formed.
The study of psycholinguistics is an area of cognitive science that is inter-related with fields of study such as neurology, psychology, linguistics, computer science, biology, anthropology, and various social sciences. Psycholinguists study nature of the relationship between language and thought and the processes by which humans ‘do’ language.
The Study of Language Processing
- language perception: how we comprehend speech sounds, words, and phrases
- language production: how we put our thoughts together and communicate them through speech
- language acquisition: how we learn our native language as a child and a foreign language as an adult
Psycholinguists investigate the role of each of the basic components of language (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics) and how they interface during language processing. Research methods depend on the aspect of language processing being studied and/or areas of the brain responsible for various processes and include:
- observations of natural speech such as examining human intuitions and speech errors
- experiments including eye-tracking, measuring response times to stimuli, and brain imaging
- computational modeling of cognitive tasks using computer programs; these theoretical models are built to simulate how the brain processes speech
Both perception and production studies provide insight to how words are categorized and stored in the lexicon (mental dictionary) and how we go about finding the words needed for comprehension or production tasks (the process of lexical retrieval)? In other words, do we listen for sounds alone in decoding speech (bottom-up processing)? If so, then how do we understand the difference between homophones (two or more words that sound alike but have different meanings).
(1) Mary ran into the chair.
How do we understand the meaning of chair, which has two plausible readings: either a piece of furniture for sitting or a person who oversees faculty members)?
At what point is the context of a word accessed to disambiguate meaning (top-down processing)? Or consider how the sentence below lends itself to two interpretations.
(2) Batman saw the next-door neighbor with his glasses.
Either Batman used his glasses to see his next-door neighbor, or Batman saw the next-door neighbor who actually had his glasses. Studies that probe questions about the process of disambiguation of such sentences reveal the nature of sentence construction and phrasal hierarchy.
Studying speech errors has shed much light on the way in which sounds, words and phrases are processed. For example, we know that sentences are constructed by piecing together constituents, or phrases due to the nature of errors such as (3) and (4).
(3) We went to the Spanish market to buy bresh feets. (instead of ‘fresh beets’)
(4) We went to the Manish sparket to buy fresh beets. (instead of ‘Spanish market’)
In both instances, the errors occur within respective noun phrases. Errors will not occur in which sounds are interchanged across noun phrases.
(5) We went to the Spanish barket to buy fresh meats.
Measuring response times (RT) is used to map possible pathways in the brain that lead from a stimulus to a target response. RTs reveal the temporal organization of processing. In other words, do a series of processes occur one at a time such that they do not overlap (serial processing) or do several processes occur simultaneously (parallel processing)? RTs also indicate sensitivities between linguistic components revealing how, for instance, semantic properties may influence the selection of one string of phonemes over another.
Interfaced with all aspects of how the brain carries out linguistic processes is memory. Studies on memory give insight into the perception and short term storage of speech sounds during the decoding of an utterance. They also show which type of information is retained during decoding, i.e., after a time lag, is word meaning retained over syntactic structure or vise versa?
As you can see, the study of psycholinguistics is vast. Below is a brief list of terms that you will encounter in your studies.
- acquisition of L1 and L2
- Critical Period Hypothesis
- Critical Age
- Innateness Theory
- priming (semantic, morphological, syntactic, etc.)
- word Frequency
- ambiguity (semantic and syntactic)
- memory (working, short term, long term)
- focal attention
- connectionist models
- lexical retrieval
- tacit vs. explicit knowledge
- models (computational, connectionist, top-down, bottom-up, spreading activation, cascading)
The focus of these exercises covers basic material about how the brain ‘does’ language. You will need to be very familiar with certain core grammar areas so we suggest you refer to exercises in phonetics, morphology, syntax (especially tree drawing) and semantics to strengthen your knowledge.