A brief history of psycholinguistics and psycholinguistic language research

Linguistics [the scientific study of language] and psychology [the scientific study of human behavior and cognition] together formed a new, modern scientific discipline called psycholinguistics – the study of psychological processes involved in acquiring, understanding, producing and remembering or storing language. These psychological processes involve listening, reading, speaking and writing. Psycholinguistics is closely related to cognitive psychology and research in the field relies heavily upon the experimental method.

Therefore, a psycholinguist is a person who studies phenomena resulting from the act of intersection between linguistics and psychology.

Language use is both a human and mental activity; the question of how language and thought are related was the object of interest in many ancient cultures such as India, China, Greece and Mesopotamia. Documented history of mind and language study is almost 2500 years old. Yet, psycholinguistics as an independent study of language and human behavior is very recent. Interest in language before the late nineteenth century was not psychologically oriented. Actually, psychology did not exist as a discipline in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Antecedents of modern psycholinguistics

The original descriptions of Broca’s (1861) and Wernicke’s (1874) aphasiasis were of particular importance for the emergence of psycholinguistics as an independent discipline, but concrete progress came from the work of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), who founded the first official research laboratory for psychological research at the University of Leipzig, Germany (1879). He was a psychologist, doctor and professor, nowadays widely regarded as the father of experimental psychology. The foundation of Wundt’s lab in Leipzig (1879) is identified not only as the beginning of psychology as an independent discipline but also as the beginning of philosophical and empirical research carried on language.

Wundt published a book on languages (Die Sprache, 1900, which appeared in two-volume edition in 1912-1913). 1367 pages of his book covered a number of topics such as child language acquisition, sign language, language perception and grammatical structure; these topics are still relevant in modern psycholinguistics. Wundt believed that language reflected mental representations and held that internal mental states were very important. He viewed sentence as the key unit of language and tried to prove the influence on its production and comprehension (in terms of universal characteristics of human information processing such as attention and memory).

His influence dramatically waned after World War I and the advent of behaviorism. While Wundt favored strict experimentation, the great new psycholinguist and functionalist Karl Büher, who emerged from the Würzburg group and whose ideas were influenced by the Gestalt psychologists, favored the use of introspective techniques.

Arthur Blumenthal was among the first ones who documented the work of Wundt and other German psychologists (and their followers) in the area of psycholinguistics (1970). Blumenthal claimed that Leonard Bloomfield, G.H. Mead, F. de Saussure and E. Boas were regular attendees of Wundt’s lectures at the University of Leipzig, and also the so-called ‘young grammarians’ (“Junggrammatiker”) who were reacting against the dullness of Germanic university traditions in humanities.

Although Bloomfieldian linguistics had very little with psychology or behaviorism, Wundt’s influence may be seen in his book Introduction to the study of language (1914). On the other hand, his book Language (1933) reflects the former characteristics of behaviorism.

The beginning of the modern era in psycholinguistics

There were three critical moments in history of language acquisition research making foundations for the modern era: two seminars sponsored by The Social Science Research Council (US) and the subsequent publication of the original version of Osgood and Sebeok’s (1965) Psycholinguistics: A survey of theory and research problems.

Three approaches to language behavior were identified: linguistic approach, learning theory approach based on behaviorism, which was strongly opposed by Chomsky, Fodor and others, and the information theory approach, which was generally important for cognitive psychology (the latter two were soon dismissed as too narrow to encompass language behavior).

The first major wave of relevant work looked at the psychological reality and transformations, which led to the Derivational Theory or Complexity. Empirical work on language acquisition was also influenced by Noam Chomsky who later dismissed the idea that experimental work in psychology may have implications for linguistic theory.

Linguistis in North America made a strong impact on the cognitive psychology emerging in the 1950s (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). North Americans date the history of psycholinguistics from the 1950s, but most linguists would agree that psycholinguistics actually started in the mid- to late 1960s.

Psycholinguistic research

Most research in psycholinguistics has been done in the field of children’s language acquisition because children seem to learn a second or third language very quickly and with ease despite the fact that language is extremely complex. Psychologists doing research on child language discover relevant phenomena concerning human cognition and learning, while linguists discover important truths about the structure of language. Jean Aitchison (2007) claims that “psychologists test their hypotheses mainly by means of carefully controlled experiments. Linguists, on the other hand, test their hypotheses mainly by checking them against spontaneous utterances”.

Influence of Noam Chomsky’s view of linguistics

Psycholinguistic research on child language acquisition and learning in the 1960s and early ’70s heavily relied on the transformational-generative model proposed by Noam Chomsky, a famous American linguist and cognitive scientist. Chomsky is the eighth most cited source of all time and #1 most cited living author. The objective of that research model was to discover how children acquired the grammatical processes in support of the speech they heard.

The transformational-generative model was later adapted for the processing and comprehension of speech . This is a field of psycholinguistics in which early experiments tried to prove, for example, that it took longer to process passive sentences than their active counterparts. They also suggested that the reason for this was the necessity of a grammatical rule needed to produce passive sentences.

Modern psycholinguistics has turned to new functionally related and socially oriented models of language structure research because the results of this earlier work showed controversy and inconclusiveness.

Important and very useful resources in the field of psycholinguistics for teachers and students (also used as references in this article)include:

  • Traxler, M. & Gernsbacher, A. M. (2006), Handbook of Psycholinguistics
  • Cowles, H. W. (2010), Psycholinguistics 101
  • Aitchison, J. (2007,) The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics
  • Skovel, T. (1998), Psycholinguistics (Oxford Introduction to Language Study Series)

The Handbook of Psycholinguistics by Traxler and Gernsbacher is simply a must have book for psycholinguistics students and teachers. It is very detailed and helpful in understanding psycholinguistics and reserach methods in this field.