chapter  33
Psycholinguistics
ByJohn Field
Pages 15

Psycholinguistics is the study of how the mind equips human beings to handle language. Its central concern is with the cognitive processes that underlie the storage, use and acquisition of language, and their correlates in observable neural activity in the brain. In addition, psycholinguists use their understanding of the mind to shed light on certain long-standing questions concerning language as a phenomenon. They include how language evolved, whether and why it is restricted to the human race, what the precise relationship is between language and thought and whether language shares functions with general cognition or operates independently of it. Psycholinguistics is a relatively new area of study, though interest in the mind-language

relationship has a long history. Over the centuries, there has been frequent discussion of language acquisition and of the origins of language – notably in the writings of Aristotle and in the Enlightenment debate between rationalist followers of Descartes, who believed that much human knowledge was innate, and empiricists such as Hume and Locke, who asserted that it was entirely acquired. A parallel interest in the psychology of adult language developed during the nineteenth century, with initiatives such as Broca’s work on the location of language in the brain and Galton’s on word association. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, progress in all areas of cognitive science

was discouraged by the dominant behaviourist view that the human mind is unknowable. The term ‘psycholinguistics’ was probably first coined in the 1930s but the field did not emerge as a discipline in its own right until the mid-1950s, when George Miller mapped out possible areas of inquiry in a series of essays (reprinted as Miller 1968). About the same time, researchers at Haskins Laboratories began their pioneering work into the perception of phonemes. A further landmark was Chomsky’s 1959 rebuttal of the behaviourist assumptions of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior. Chomsky concluded that language is a genetically acquired faculty; this nativist stance triggered a new, and more scientific, interest in first language acquisition, and began a controversy that continues to the present day.