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Psycholinguistics

By Kamil Wiśniewski, Aug. 12th, 2007

Psycholinguistics is a branch of study which combines the disciplines of psychology and linguistics. It is concerned with the relationship between the human mind and the language as it examines the processes that occur in brain while producing and perceiving both written and spoken discourse. What is more, it is interested in the ways of storing lexical items and syntactic rules in mind, as well as the processes of memory involved in perception and interpretation of texts. Also, the processes of speaking and listening are analyzed, along with language acquisition and language disorders.

Psycholinguistics as a separate branch of study emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s as a result of Chomskyan revolution. The ideas presented by Chomsky became so important that they quickly gained a lot of publicity and had a big impact on a large number of contemporary views on language. Consequently also psycholinguists started investigating such matters as the processing of deep and surface structure of sentences. In the early years of development of psycholinguistics special experiments were designed in order to examine if the focus of processing is the deep syntactic structure. On the basis of transformation of sentences it was initially discovered that the ease of processing was connected with syntactic complexity. However, later on it became clear that not only syntactic complexity adds to the difficulty of processing, but also semantic factors have a strong influence on it.

All the same, certain principles of sentence processing that were formulated at that time are still valid. One of them, namely the principle of minimal attachment means that when processing a sentence which could have multiple meanings people most frequently tend to choose the simplest meaning, or the meaning that in syntactic analysis would present the simplest parse tree with fewest nodes. Thus, a sentence ‘Mary watched the man with the binoculars’ by most language users would be interpreted that it was Mary, and not the man, who was using binoculars. One other principle worth noting is the principle of late closure which states that there is a tendency to join the new information to the current phrase, or clause, which explains why in a sentence such as ‘John said he will leave this morning’ the phrase ‘this morning’ would be understood as relating to the verb ‘leave’ and not to ‘said’.

Other psycholinguistic investigations into how processing of texts occurs led to conclusions that complex sentences with multiple clauses are interpreted faster and with less mental effort when the clauses are not reduced. When it comes to speech the experiments show that the interpretation of sentences can vary depending on the placing of pauses, or disfluencies. Additionally, is has been proven that visual contact between speakers also has a strong influence on the ease, or difficulty of processing texts. During experiments subjects were listening to some sentences and those who saw the speaker could understand what the speech was about better, while those who did not see him often had difficulties with it.

The recent tendencies in psycholinguistics show increasing interest in discourse processing, and in particular in the ways readers create a mental representation of the narrative world. The focus of interest is on the role of readers’ schemata and the problem of inferences about the read subject matter. It has been proved that certain inferences are made in the very process of reading, while others are made later in order to resolve some problems or inconsistencies. The issues of background knowledge and automaticity of drawing inferences are still being investigated.

Finch G. 1998. How to study linguistics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brown K. (Editor) 2005. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics – 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier. Wilson R. A. (Editor) 1999. The MIT encyclopedia of cognitive sciences. London: The MIT Press.