3.1 Psycholinguistics: Definition & Theory

Jan 12, 2020 | ch3 How Language Impacts the Brain, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

The study of psycholinguistics examines how we develop, perceive, and produce language. In this lesson, you will discover the field of psycholinguistics and the most popular psycholinguistic theories.

What Is Psycholinguistics?

Have you ever spent time with a baby and wondered how they even begin to understand or develop the ability to communicate? Do we learn language through a hard-wired way through nature, or do we learn language more through the nurturing of our families? People who study psycholinguistics work towards discovering answers to these and other tough questions.

Psycholinguistics is a study that combines the fields of linguistics and psychology. Directly translated, psycholinguistics means ‘language psychology.’ If you were a psycholinguist, you could choose to work in various subfields, including language acquisition, use, comprehension, and the production of language in the mind.

For example, a psycholinguist might choose to focus on how a baby develops their specific language to the exclusion of all others. If you were to study psycholinguistics, you might study the process of language acquisition, or how the human mind develops, perceives, and produces both spoken and written communication.

Even though psycholinguistics is a mix of linguistics and psychology, you might also be interested in this field if you were studying speech and language pathology or cognitive sciences. The research within the psycholinguistics field can be broken down into specific topics. One of those topics is phonetics or phonology, which is the study of speech sounds. Another topic is morphology, the study of word structure and relationships between words. There is also syntax, which is the study of word patterns and how they build sentences. Then there is semantics, the study of the actual meanings of words and sentences, and lastly there is pragmatics, or the study of the context or interpretation of meaning.

You might ask, but what do these topics have to do with learning a language?

Well, everything really. Language begins with phonetics and develops through to pragmatics. Let’s think about that baby again. When babies coo or babble, they are just beginning to learn language. This is phonetics. Now think about when someone tells you their heart is broken. To be able to interpret the meaning, or pragmatics, that they are just sad and that their heart isn’t literally broken is a more advanced form of language use and understanding.

Theories of Psycholinguistics

There are several different theories of psycholinguistics. Let’s look at a couple.

Behaviorist Theory is the belief that children develop language based on parents rewarding proper use of language and discouraging improper use. This type of reward and punishment based learning is called operant conditioning. B. F. Skinner was the American psychologist who asserted that human learning is shaped purely by positive and negative reinforcements. His theory is more along the lines of saying nurture is the reason for the way we learn language, not nature.

Do you remember when you began communicating with your parents? Most likely, your parents would smile or clap for you when you got it right, and they would let you know if you said something incorrectly by showing less enthusiasm. Therefore, it could be said that your parents conditioned you into speaking a certain way, in a certain language, or even in using certain words.

Innatist theory was created by the MIT linguist and cognitive scientist, Noam Chomsky. Innatist theory is the belief that, as children, we are biologically pre-programmed for language. Kind of like a computer, yes. Chomsky believes that from birth we cognitively have the means necessary to learn language, but how is this possible?

Chomsky believes that you, me, and all of human kind have a type of language acquisition device, or LAD, in our minds which enables us to learn languages. This device is activated at birth and we begin to slowly learn language. His belief is based more so on the nature theory of learning, which is very much in direct opposition to Skinner’s Behaviorist Theory.

Cognitive theory was created by the Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. Cognitive theory is different from behaviorist and innatist theories because it has a developmental structure. Piaget’s theory is more about the development of human intelligence and the nature of knowledge rather than how we specifically acquire language.

Basically, Piaget believed that language acquisition was completely dependent on both knowledge and understanding gained through cognitive development. During maturation through Piaget’s four developmental stages, you would slowly build upon and acquire language. He also believed you could witness children maturing through these stages around the world, regardless of their culture.

Lesson Summary

Psycholinguistics is the study of the cognitive processes that occur in the human mind that allow us to be able to acquire, use, comprehend, and produce language. Many psychologists, linguists, speech pathologists, and cognitive scientists study psycholinguistics in order to better understand everything from how language is formed to how we learn second languages. There are many theories of psycholinguistics which mainly differ on whether language is learned through nature, meaning something already given to us, or nurture, something that is taught through our environments.

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