Simply put, Psycholinguistics is the study of how psychological factors and neurological factors influence the way we learn, understand, and use language.
It tries to answer questions like:
- How do our brains process language?
- How do we recognize speech and how do we produce it?
- How do we perceive letters, words, sentences and so on?
- How do we store and recall language in our brains?
Then it can be taken to a more practical or applied level and ask questions like:
- How can we improve texts so they can be more easily understood?
- How do disabilities affect our language skills?
- Can other species use language?
However, one of the most important branches of psycholinguistics – certainly for TEFL teachers – is how we acquire language. The idea being that once we know precisely how native speakers learn language we can apply those same techniques to students learning English in our TEFL classrooms.
Acquisition & Comprehension
These are the two main fields of psycholinguistic research.
Regarding acquisition, there are two main theories as to how a child learns a language. The first suggests that the child’s brain is essentially empty and they need to learn every aspect of language to use it. The second suggests that a child is born with an innate ability to use language and that only the top level of language needs to be input for the child to use a language successfully.
Regarding comprehension, psycholinguists look at how, when we read a sentence, we process the words and grammar and structure into something we understand. Likewise how, when we listen to an utterance, we process the individual sounds into something meaningful.
How is Psycholinguistics Researched?
In the beginning psycholinguistics was largely philosophical and theoretical (notwithstanding Psammetichus below) mainly due to the lack of any real knowledge of how the human brain functioned.
However, as advances in biology, neuroscience and suchlike were made, so these could be used alongside linguistic data to see how the two worked together.
For example, psycholinguists might wire a subject up to an EEG and examine the way the brain reacts during certain language tests. Likewise they might give subjects language tests to do under differing conditions and try to establish what factors influence the way we process language.
On another tack, the errors people make when they use language can often give an insight into how the brain is processing a language.
Famously – and most likely apocryphally – there is a story about Psammetichus who was Pharaoh of Egypt from 664 – 610 BCE.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Psammetichus conducted an experiement to discover the origin of language. He apparently gave two newborn children to a shephard with strict instructions that no one should ever speak to them. Meanwhile the shephard should feed and care for them while he waited and listened for their first words.
The idea was, of course, that they would start speaking in the original language of humans before being influenced by any language they happened to hear around them.
Eventually one of the children called out βηκοs or bikos which was the Phrygian word for bread (Phrygia was part of what is now Turkey). Psammetichus thus declared that Phrygia was the original language of humans.Image © delta_avi_delta