Language is a system of transmitting views and expressing ideas in form of speech or in written forms. The vocabulary of any language is a lexicon and it is serves as a connection between a sign and its meaning in any language. Therefore language is divided in three parts: signs, meaning, and a code connecting signs and meanings. In any Language there are four levels which are used to analyse the language. These levels are: Phonology which analyses sounds; Morphology which analyses units forming a language structure; Syntax which analyses rules and principles in forming sentences; and Semantics which analyses the relationship between signs and its meanings in a language. The role of language in cognitive psychology is that it influences people thinking, talking, problem solving and perceptions.
The scientific study of languages is referred to as linguistics (Halliday & Webster, 2006, p. 3). The term ‘language’ has numerous definitions that are generally divided into two meanings. Language can refer to a general concept which is the precise human ability of learning and using complex principles of communication. The other meaning is that it can refer to a linguistic system which is a specific instance during a complex communication. In studying language as a general concept, other different definitions can be used to stress different aspects of language phenomenon. These definitions explain language as (Halliday & Webster, 2006, p.7): a mental faculty that permits people to commence linguistic behaviour; an official system of symbols ruled by grammatical principles that blend signs with specific meanings; and a system of communication that facilitate interaction amongst humans.
In linguistics the vocabulary of any language is called the lexicon and it includes the languages words and expressions. The function of a lexicon is to coordinate and arrange vocabulary in a speakers mind. This is through first organizing vocabulary in accordance to certain principles and secondly using a generative device that creates simple and complex words according to certain lexical guidelines (Trask, 1999).
Key Features of Human Language
The definitions of a language and lexicon prove that human language is unique and complex as it permits humans to produce endless statements from a limited set of elements. Furthermore, its uniqueness is seen when its complex structure is so much advanced in serving numerous functions than any other type of communication system. The three parts of language are signs, meaning, and a code connecting signs with their meanings (Trask, 1999). In studying the three parts of human language, Hockette a structural linguistics listed key features of a human language which include (Hockette, 1960, pp. 88-93):
(a) Vocal-Auditory Channel- human language is a vocal communication that is recognized by hearing. Exceptions in this case are writing and sign language. Nonetheless, majority of human language is in this mode.
(b) Broadcast Diffusion and Directional Reception- When signals are sent out from a person they are spread in all directions but when receiving, the perception is in one direction. This is the reason why many people at a function such as a church can listen to a message that was sent from one area, the dais. However, the audience perceive the message as having coming from one direction hence directional reception.
(c) Quickly Disappears- Human language does not persist long after communication is made. This is the reason why no one can communicate at a particular moment and expect the message to be received later on. For instance if someone communicates verbally to another person, the message will be received immediately not two hours later.
(d) Exchangeability- This feature signifies that the sender of a signal can receive and send the same signal. This feature is what makes human language unique from animal language.
(e) Complete Feedback- The human language is in such a way that the sender of a signal can monitor how they are communicating. This is different from other communication systems such as the traffic signals that cannot scrutinize the messages that they send out.
(f) Specialization- Humans have organs that are specially designed for the human language. This is shown when the ears, throats, mouth and even lips are specifically designed for effective communication. Animals on the other hand do not exhibit this kind of specialization.
(g) Semanticity- Human language has specific signals that can be connected with particular meanings. In French, the word garÇon means a male of young age while in English the word used is boy. Anyone communicating in these languages will identify that garcon and boy signify a male of young age.
Other features he noted were: arbitrariness of the language, meaning that the connection between the sign and its meaning is unpredictable; duality of patterning, meaning that small parts of a language can be reconstructed in systematic ways to new forms; and productivity of the linguistic system whereby fixed number of language parts can be reconstructed to form countless numbers of combinations.
Levels of Language Structure and Processing
The four levels of language structure and processing are: Phonology, Syntax, Semantics, and Morphology (Halliday & Webster, p. 17). These levels are useful in analysing language and in defining different languages. Morphology is a level where the structure of a language is analyzed through examination and evaluation of units that form a sentence. The smallest unit that can form a sentence is called a morpheme and it can be free or bound. For instance, the English word ‘unpredictable’ has three morphemes that are un-, predict, and –able.
Phenology is a level where spoken language is analysed to come up with a meaning. Sounds in the spoken language are the ones being analysed at this level. Sounds as part of a linguistic system make up Phonems and they contribute in expressing the meaning in a communication system. Major categories of phonems in many languages are vowels and consonants which when combined formed syllables.
Apart from the listed categories, other languages use pitch, stress, duration and tone to produce different sounds that have various meanings in language.
Semantics is a level of language where separate words are combined to form a sensible meaning. In linguistics, all languages relate signs to a certain meaning. For instance in French the word Sel denotes a white crystalline structure of Sodium Chloride while in English the term Salt is the equivalent of the same substance. In any language a system of signs connected to certain meanings make up a lexicon, with a single sign connected to a meaning being the lexeme.
Syntax level is where a language is analysed so that rules and principles used in constructing sentences in a communication system are strictly adhered to. Syntax deals with the order in which words are arranged in sentences and how complex sentences are structured together to form phrases that can be used in a larger syntactic structure.
Role of Language Processing in Cognitive Psychology
Cognitive psychology was a psychology sub-field that was developed in the late fifties to investigating internal cerebral development of humans in order to understand how they speak, remember, perceive, talk and solve problems (Clark, 1998, p. 6). The difference in this branch from other psychology is that its approach: is scientific and does not accept self-examination; and recognizes presence of internal mind states such as desires, motivation, and belief.
Language plays a key role in cognitive development in humans. Noam Chomsky a linguists and a psychologist managed to prove that language abilities in humans were similar to a mental organ. On this notion he argued that children were born with an internal language acquisition device and with specific knowledge. Knowledge in this case is nouns, verbs, grammatical concepts, and structures that influence language rules. Language therefore supports children development through enabling them acquire new skills and abilities.
Vygotsky a Russian psychologist supported this notion when he investigated the obvious speech of children. He concluded that language played a key role in problem solving in children, partly by helping to focus their awareness, and partly through reiteration and practising of adult leadership. This role is further supported when children are seen to accompany their actions with plain monologues. In older children and adults he inferred that inner speech served the same function.
Many of the ideas presented by the early psychologist were used by modern investigators to prove that language influences human cognition. For instance, Diaz and Berk (1992) investigated and discovered that children became more vocal in difficult tasks. They further noted that the same children who were verbal were better in problem solving. Likewise Clark (1998) highlighted the numerous ways language anchored cognition from shopping lists and post-it notes, mental rehearsal of mnemonics and instructions, to solving of complex arithmetic problems.
Language and Cognition are interconnected in such a way that they both influence each other in human development. Understanding of words and sounds of a language influences how a person thinks, speaks, solves problems, and perceive. At the same time Cognitive development influences language development when it results in diverse ways in which language is transmitted.
Clark, A. (1998). Magic Words: how language augments human computation. In P. Carrothers and J. Boucher (eds.), Language and Thought, Cambridge University Press. Pp. 6-98
Diaz, R. and Berk, L., eds. (1992). Private Speech: from social Interaction to self regulation. Erlbaum. Pp. 46-78
Halliday, M. A. K. and Webster, J. (2006). On Language and Linguistics. London: Continuum International Publishing. Pp. 3+
Hockett, C.F. (1960). The Origin of Speech. Scientific American Journal on Structural linguistics, 203, 88-96
Trask, R. L. (1999). Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. New York: Routledge. Pp. 1-232