Psycholinguistics - The Psychology of Language Learning: An Overview

Aditi Rastogi

19th January, 2021

Ever wondered how a tiny baby goes from babbling and cooing in sing-song voices to stringing words together to make a powerful sentence? It is certainly a miraculous stage, when a child takes their first words, trying to copy your mouth movements to say “dada.” But how much do they understand, and where is it that they acquire this language? Psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics try to answer many questions like these. 

Psycholinguistics which has gained immense importance in the past few years integrates certain subfields in linguistics, psychology, biomedical and neurological sciences as well. Psycholinguistics encompasses neurolinguistics, the major focus being mental structures and aspects involved in language and communication - written and verbal.

“All human behavior, language, thoughts, feelings, actions, and consciousness emerge from this massively interconnected network of neurons. Each neuron is pretty dumb; it either fires in a certain situation or it doesn't, but out of this mass dumbness comes great cleverness” 

— Trevor Harley

Psycholinguistics can essentially be regarded as the psychology of language. This combines psychology and linguistics scientifically, aiming to study the relationship between language and the human mind. It studies humans as critical thinkers, focusing on what happens to them when they receive and produce language.  Language is a cognitive aspect, requiring higher levels of processing and understanding. Thus, this specialized branch helps comprehend the devices in the human brain and the mental structures involved in language processing and acquisition. 

The key concern of the psycholinguists is to understand language development. To that end, numerous researches have been conducted on the development of speech and language to investigate how humans of varying ages grasp and produce language. Areas of interest also include sex differences, aphasia, i.e. the effect on language after brain damage/injury, and the developmental disorders related to language comprehension, production, or acquisition. Researches have also been going on to understand the language process of non-human animals, to find out languag\\\e as we understand it as a uniquely human phenomenon (Psycholinguistics—An overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/psycholinguistics).

Since the conception of psycholinguistics in the 19th century, many developments have taken place in this “still new” and less recognized branch. People are receiving psycholinguistic training to overcome their lingual deficits. This has posed as a major intervention that is being used by individuals having learning disabilities. Many computer models of human language processing have evolved to evaluate the already existing models for their consistency, and adequacy, as well as push the branch further by coming up with newer hypotheses. Thus, computer modeling i.e. computational psycholinguistics has gained enough attention in this branch. The experiments held in this field are based on reaction-time methodology i.e. the time taken for a particular response to appear after presenting the stimulus. The past 2 decades have also been dedicated to the uniqueness of bilingual and multilingual people in comprehension, acquisition, and production of language.

The language knowledge - phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, sentence construction, its interpretation, the associations we create of sounds and words, and their meaning are all studied under this highly specialized interdisciplinary field of psycholinguistics. In 1965, the term Psycholinguistics was proposed, for this specialized field and along with it, the Associative Chain Theory. This theory applies to most of the complex behaviors, which also includes language. According to this, the linguistic behaviors are formed because of combinations of simple stimulus and, these are called response associations (APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://dictionary.apa.org/associative-chain-theory). 

One of the most eminent psycholinguists is Noam Chomsky who proposed a groundbreaking idea, that individuals have an innate knowledge of grammar and this innateness serves as the basis for the acquisition of language. He thus assumed that language is uniquely human and has biologically based cognitive capacities. According to him, and I quote, 

“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”

So, if questions like what knowledge of the language does, how do we use language successfully and appropriately? The whole process behind speaking and writing which goes on in our mind interests us, then psycholinguistics should be the branch which one should explore. Although extremely specific, it presents us with a lot of scopes, like language, I believe is an integral part of humans. Without language, we might be a higher-order, cognitive species, but we will not be able to communicate what we wish to convey, neither our knowledge nor our emotions. And, while, the specifics of language learning, production, comprehension, and acquisition remain murky, we must delve deeper into this interesting, scope-laden branch and make our discoveries!

About the Author

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Aditi Rastogi, is currently majoring in the field of psychology, exploring and trying to keep up with the newer ventures of psychology. Apart from this she likes to unwind through reading books with a cup of coffee.