Psycholinguistics is a branch of applied linguistics which is concerned with the study of how word meaning, sentence meaning, and discourse meaning are computed and represented in the mind (Field, 2003).Psycholinguists study the manner in which complex words and sentences are produced in speech and how they are broken down into their constituent parts in the processes such as listening and reading .Basically, psycholinguistics is concerned with the understanding of how language is ‘done’.
Linguistic communication inherently involves the resolution of uncertainty over a potentially unbounded set of possible signals and meanings. The problem arising here is how a fixed set of knowledge and resources can be employed so as to manage this uncertainty. The study involved here is known as language processing. Another problem is how such knowledge can be learned from finite input. This is done through the study of language acquisition. Psycholinguistics studies these problems through observational studies, experiments, and computational modeling (Finch, 1998).
Psycholinguistics emerged in the 1960s.However, psycholinguists have for long been interested in the study of language before this time .Chomsky’s work provided motivation behind the its emergences as a branch of linguistics, and by his idea that the special properties of a language needs some special mechanisms to handle (Bader, 1998).The special feature of language that Chomsky focused on was its productivity. He claimed that armed with a grammar, or syntax, human beings are able to produce and understand novel sentences that carry novel messages.
Early psychologists based the description of language production on the rules that were prescribed by linguists ( Bock,1986).The connections between psychology and linguistic were close in the syntax area. Here the psycholinguistics were able to test the psychological reality of various given linguistic rules .As the field of psycholinguistics grew and developed,it became more evident that that the theories of sentence production and comprehension cannot be simply be based on linguistic theories .Instead, there was the need to consider psycholinguistic theories as well as the language structures. Therefore, psycholinguistics has become its own area of inquiry, informed partially by linguistics.
Although Chomsky and his fellow early psycholinguistics focused on the creative aspect of language, language (Chomsky,1959).The ideas presented by Chomsky became so popular as a result of the publicity that they gained with a very short period of time .Consequently ,the other linguistic scientists also began investigating matters such as the study of surface and deep sentential structures. The early years of psycholinguistics development were marked with the development of special kinds of experiments designed in order to examine if the focus of processing is actually the deep syntactic structures. When it comes to the basis of transformation of sentences, these scientists discovered that that ease of processing was basically connected to with syntactic complexity. However, later studies revealed that syntactic complexity was actually making the processing to be more difficult.
These new developments did not change all the earlier principles of psycholinguistics .Certain principles of sentence processing still remained valid and relevant. One of such principles is the principle of minimal attachment. This principle states that when processing a sentence ,which may have more than one meaning ,many people tend to choose the simplest meaning, or the meaning which in syntactic analysis will present them with the simplest parse tree with the smallest number of nodes ( Abney,1989).For example, in the sentence ‘Cinderella watched the lady with the binoculars’, most people will take the person using the instrument to be Cinderella ,not the lady. Another principle of psycholinguistics is the principle of late closure .The principle states that people have a tendency to join new information to the already existing phrase, clause or sentence. This explains why in a sentence such as ‘Molly said that she will go this night’, the phrase ‘this night ‘would be understood as relating to the verb ‘go’ but not the verb ‘said’.
Psycholinguistics investigations on the how language processing occurs led to the conclusions that complex sentences with multiple clauses are interpreted and understood faster as and with less effort when the clauses are not reduced. These experiments show that when it comes to speech, the interpretation of sentences will vary according to the use pauses ( Abney,1989) . It is also important to note that these studies have shown that the visual contacts between speakers do also have a very big influence on the ease, or difficulty with which sentences are processed. In the experiments, subjects listened to some sentences and those who saw the speaker tended to understand the speaker better, while those who did not see the speaker had difficulties doing the same (Tanenhaus, 1995).
The new developing tendencies in psycholinguistics show increasing interest in discourse and in particular in the different ways in which readers and listeners create a mental picture of the world of narration(Tanenhaus,1995) .The focus is increasingly being put on the role of the reader s’ schemata and the issue of the problem of inferences about the real subject matter. It has been proven that certain inferences are made later in the very process of reading, while others are made later in order to resolve some problems or inconsistencies (Brown,2005) .Still, the issues surrounding knowledge and automaticity of inference are still being investigated by linguistic experts.
Being an interdisciplinary field, psycholinguistic draws on ideas and knowledge from a number of associated areas such as phonetics and phonology, morphology semantics, pragmatics as well as pure linguistics (Field, 2003).As a result of this, there is always exchange of information among these areas. For example there is exchange of information between psycholinguistics and those working in neurolinguistics, who study how language is represented in the brain (Field, 2003) .Close links, are also seen between psycholinguistics and the studies in artificial intelligence. Indeed according to Field (2003), much of the early interest in language processing derived from the AI goals of designing computer programs that can turn speech into writing and programs that can recognize. A researcher who is interested in language comprehension may study the process involved in word recognition while reading may involve the use of morphology syntax, and phonology for better understanding of printed text.
There are methodologies that are used in the process of psycholinguistic experiments. They include eye movements and behavioral tasks.Tanenhaus at al. (1995) used the paradigm of the real world to study the cognitive process that is connected to language study. The assumption that movement of the eye is very closely related to the current focus of attention, language processing can be studied by monitoring eye movements while subject is being presented with linguistic input through hearing(Tanenhaus et al.,1995)
The other methodology is behavioral tasks. The experiment involved here is behavioral in nature. Subjects are presented with linguistic stimuli and then asked to perform a certain action.They, for example, may be asked to make a decision on a given word, lexical decision. Stimulus is responded to by them producing by them by saying their decisions (Fischler, 1977).This is an S-R link found in behavioral theory of psychology. To illustrate this, Fischler (1977) investigated word encoding by the use of lexical decision. In this ,he asked his participants to decide on whether two strings of letters were actually English words .At times, the strings would be actually English words requiring a ‘yes’ response from them, while sometimes they would be non-English word requiring a ‘no’ response. When related sets of words, for example .cat-dog, Fischler found out that the response was faster as compared to that for unrelated word such as bread-stem. This suggests that semantic relatedness can indeed facilitate word encoding.
Psycholinguistics studies are very important in the study of language studies. These studies have revealed many concepts that are employed in the analysis of sound, word structure, and sentence structure .Psycholinguistics also play a big role in language processing. However, full account of language processing also calls upon us to understand how these linguistic concepts interact with other human processing in order for language to be produced and comprehended.
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