What Is Psycholinguistics?

Learn More With This Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Psycholinguistics is the study of the mental aspects of language and speech. It is primarily concerned with the ways in which language is represented and processed in the brain.

A branch of both linguistics and psychology, psycholinguistics is part of the field of cognitive science. Adjective: psycholinguistic.

The term psycholinguistics was introduced by American psychologist Jacob Robert Kantor in his 1936 book, "An Objective Psychology of Grammar." The term was popularized by one of Kantor's students, Nicholas Henry Pronko, in a 1946 article "Language and Psycholinguistics: A Review." The emergence of psycholinguistics as an academic discipline is generally linked to an influential seminar at Cornell University in 1951.

Pronunciation: si-ko-lin-GWIS-tiks

Also known as: Psychology of language

Etymology: From the Greek, "mind" + the Latin, "tongue"

On Psycholinguistics

"Psycholinguistics is the study of the mental mechanisms that make it possible for people to use language. It is a scientific discipline whose goal is a coherent theory of the way in which language is produced and understood," says Alan Garnham in his book, "Psycholinguistics: Central Topics."

Two Key Questions

According to David Carrol in "Psychology of Language," "At its heart, psycholinguistic work consists of two questions. One is, What knowledge of language is needed for us to use language? In a sense, we must know a language to use it, but we are not always fully aware of this knowledge.... The other primary psycholinguistic question is, What cognitive processes are involved in the ordinary use of language? By 'ordinary use of language,' I mean such things as understanding a lecture, reading a book, writing a letter, and holding a conversation. By 'cognitive processes,' I mean processes such as perception, memory, and thinking. Although we do few things as often or as easily as speaking and listening, we will find that considerable cognitive processing is going on during those activities."

How Language Is Done

In the book, "Contemporary Linguistics," linguistics expert William O'Grady explains, "Psycholinguists study how word meaning, sentence meaning, and discourse meaning are computed and represented in the mind. They study how complex words and sentences are composed in speech and how they are broken down into their constituents in the acts of listening and reading. In short, psycholinguists seek to understand how language is done... In general, psycholinguistic studies have revealed that many of the concepts employed in the analysis of sound structure, word structure, and sentence structure also play a role in language processing. However, an account of language processing also requires that we understand how these linguistic concepts interact with other aspects of human processing to enable language production and comprehension."

An Interdisciplinary Field

"Psycholinguistics... draws on ideas and knowledge from a number of associated areas, such as phonetics, semantics, and pure linguistics. There is a constant exchange of information between psycholinguists and those working in neurolinguistics, who study how language is represented in the brain. There are also close links with studies in artificial intelligence. Indeed, much of the early interest in language processing derived from the AI goals of designing computer programs that can turn speech into writing and programs that can recognize the human voice," says John Field in "Psycholinguistics: A Resource Book for Students."

On Psycholinguistics and Neuroimaging

According to Friedmann Pulvermüller in "Word Processing in the Brain as Revealed by Neurophysiological Imaging," "Psycholinguistics has classically focused on button press tasks and reaction time experiments from which cognitive processes are being inferred. The advent of neuroimaging opened new research perspectives for the psycholinguist as it became possible to look at the neuronal mass activity that underlies language processing. Studies of brain correlates of psycholinguistic processes can complement behavioral results, and in some cases...can lead to direct information about the basis of psycholinguistic processes."

Sources

Carroll, David. Psychology of Language. 5th ed., Thomson, 2008.

Field, John. Psycholinguistics: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge, 2003.

Garnham, Alan. Psycholinguistics: Central Topics. Methuen, 1985.

Kantor, Jacob Robert. An Objective Psychology of Grammar. Indiana University, 1936.

O’Grady, William, et al., Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Pronko, Nicholas Henry. "Language and Psycholinguistics: A Review." Psychological Bulletin, vol. 43, May 1946, pp. 189-239.

Pulvermüller, Friedmann. "Word Processing in the Brain as Revealed by Neurophysiological Imaging." The Oxford Handbook of Psycholinguistics. Edited by M. Gareth Gaskell. Oxford University Press, 2007.