Psycholinguistics Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

Psycholinguistics focuses on the skills and processes involved in the perception and expression of language. This article first describes levels of language representation, for example, semantics and grammar. It then delves into various language competencies, such as reading and speech that comprise language acquisition and production. Applications of psycholinguistics are also reviewed in the current article along with topics of interest in the field of psycholinguistics such as bilingualism.

Keywords Discourse; Grammar; Language Acquisition; Language Production; Language Skills; Morphology; Phonology; Psycholinguistics; Psychology; Semantics; Syntax


Psycholinguistics is more than just the psychology of language. More specifically, it has been defined as "the study of human language processing, involving a range of abilities, from cognition to sensorimotor activity, that are recruited to the service of a complex set of communicative functions" (Garman, 2000, p. 361). Psycholinguistics is concerned with how individuals communicate through symbols, or semiotics, via a number of language skills.

In detailing the components and processes involved in learning a language, Widdowson (2000) asserted that individuals must first gain an awareness of the various meanings within a language and then learn how to enact these meanings when using the language. Language can be spoken and written and involves production and reception. Therefore, language skills, or competencies, include speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Language ability entails how individuals put language skills to use.

Psycholinguistics deals with the reception, storage or representation, and production of words (Baker, Croot, McLeod, & Paul, 2001). How individuals receive, or perceive, words and then produce them is a type of language process. The perception of words is initiated when individuals encounter an input signal. The words produced are output signals. Psycholinguistics attends to the processes that take place in the period between input and output signals. Understanding psycholinguistics requires investigation of the multiple components and psychological aspects of the various language processes that comprise language development, including language reception, or acquisition, and language production.

Components of Language Development

In their work, Baker et. al (2001) discussed the important construct of underlying representations or how words exist, or are represented, in an individual's mind. Representations are stored in input and output lexicons. Gernsbacher and Kaschak (2003) detailed "sub-word-level processing, word processing, sentence-level processing, discourse processing, and issues of…neural architecture…" (p. 93) as processes and components related to language representations and skills.

Sub-word-level and word processing appear to be the building blocks of language and its development. Grammar is a pertinent construct in language development because it is through knowledge of grammar that individuals are able to construct and understand language through sentences. Clifton (2000) defined grammar as including syntax, morphology, and phonology. According to Clifton, syntax is the relationship between various components of a sentence; morphology refers to how words are composed and relate to other words and phrases; and phonology is the configuration of sounds that comprise a language. Phonemes are the most basic units of sound and can be combined to form phonetic units (Kuhl, 2004). Representation at the phonetic, phonemic, lexical-phonological, and semantic levels influences recognition and comprehension of words (Martin, 2003).

Semantics, or the meaning conveyed by language processes at the word (or lexical), sentence, and discourse levels (Sanford, 2000), is another integral construct in language development. Miller (1999) emphasized the import of knowing what a word means and the contexts in which the word will be used in his discussion of semantics. Aspects of semantics reviewed by Miller include logical, linguistic, sentential, and lexical semantics. Logical semantics refers to a theory on the arrangements of meanings found in a language. Linguistic semantics is the description of meanings for a language while sentential semantics focuses on what statements mean. Lexical semantics refers to the manner in which words that have individual meanings combine within a sentence to create another meaning. Finally, discourse, as defined by Singer (2000), is the logical arrangement of sentences in written or spoken format.

In regard to the neural architectural aspect of language development, Gernsbacher and Kaschak (2003) provided an overview of research on neuroimaging, including positron emissions tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and language processing. In these studies, individuals were monitored while completing tasks or responding to stimuli, such as semantic judgments and word generation, so that areas of the brain involved with the tasks and stimuli could be ascertained. Once words began to be processed, orthographic, or symbolic, representations of words were found to give way to phonological level processing. Pertinent results from Gernsbacher and Kaschak's review are included in the language acquisition and language production sections below.

Language Acquisition

Processing word representations in the input lexicon is part of language acquisition, or reception. With regard to lexicons, Miller (1999) asserted that closed-class and open-class words comprise the English lexicon. How the format and meaning of words interrelate create the framework for a lexicon. For closed-class words, such as pronouns and conjunctions, the functional role is in grammar. Open-class words are more numerous than closed-class words with meaning created by their relationships with other open-class words. Incorporated in language acquisition then are the language competencies of listening, or comprehension, and reading of words in a lexicon.

Bates, Devescovi, and Wulfeck (2001), review an investigation of language acquisition for children across multiple nations that addressed the genesis of word-level processing for language. Results indicated that children begin to understand words at between 8 to 10 months and start producing words between 11 to 13 months. By two years of age, children may be able to produce upwards of 500 words. The rate at which words are produced between initial word production and two years of age varies greatly across language. Grammar development also differs across languages and has been posited to be connected to vocabulary growth as well.

According to Ziegler and Goswami (2000), reading involves comprehension of written speech to ascertain meaning. Reading incorporates connecting visual symbols to sound. Phonological recoding takes words at the lexical level and maps them onto the sound levels. This process requires phonological awareness. Discrepancies in phonological awareness may lead to a language disorder such as dyslexia.

Brown (2005) investigated how children learn words and grammar. Of interest to Brown was children's engagement with the social environment as an influence of children's word and grammar learning. Dale (2004) explored the role of negative feedback children receive in regard to word learning and early grammar usage. Both word learning and early grammar usage relate to word-and sentence-level language processing. Dale stated that overextension occurs when children use one word for several others, such as apple for other fruit such as orange and pear. Social responses to overextension are a form of feedback that lends to the word learning process for youth with caregiver responses to children's language also shaping grammar development.

In a similar vein, Bates et al. (2001) investigated psycholinguistic concepts such as cue costs and cue validity from a cross-linguistic perspective. Cue costs are how much processing is required to use various formats of language while cue validity is the information garnered from different aspects of language. Cue costs and cue validity may differ in relevancy and...

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