Language is a distinct cognition that makes humans extremely unique. It provides people with the ability to express ideas by creating sentences with a limited set of symbols. These symbols have distinct sounds and shapes that are put together to form words. Psycholinguistics is the study of the process in which a person gains this ability to communicate meaningful sentences using words and sounds. It also explores how a person can understand different forms of communication.
Psycholinguists are part of an extraordinary field that studies how language acquisition occurs, which is an important process to fully understand. This did not emerge as an independent field of study until the nineteen-sixties. It was inspired by Noam Chomsky’s work in linguistics and the belief that people have a language acquisition device that plays an important part in helping them to acquire language (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011). However, to fully understand this field of study one must first take a closer look at the field of linguistics.
Linguistics is the study of language and all the structures in encompasses. On a daily basis language is taken for granted and truly under appreciated. Language is extremely intricate and gains this complexity by the abundant structures it embodies such as semantics, syntax, morphology and phonology. In order to comprehend linguistics as a whole, the study of each structure must first be understood individually. Semantics is the “study of the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences” (Parker & Riley, 1994). meaning of individual words are first learned and as this continues those words are put into phrases and sentences that can then also be understood. Syntax is the “study of the arrangement of words to form phrases, clauses and sentences” (Parker & Riley, 1994).
When observing children, it can be seen that they tend to arrange words in ways that do not make sense to adults, but as they develop they learn the proper ways to assemble sentences. Morphology is the “study of word formation” from the smallest unit of meaning known as a morpheme (Parker & Riley, 1994). There are free morphemes that can stand alone and still hold meaning such as Bold- when Boldest is divided. Then there are bound morphemes that hold no meaning when standing alone (Parker & Riley, 1994).
Phonology is the study of the sounds associated with language. This field of linguistics focuses on how sounds are created based on features within the mouth. The sounds a person produces are dependent on the height of their tongue, where in the mouth their tongue is placed, the shape of the individual’s lips and the vocal musculature being used (Parker & Riley, 1994). Understanding the roots of language now makes it easier to follow the process of how language is acquired.
Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive and comprehend language. Language acquisition also looks at how people produce and use words and sentences to communicate. It is a very complex process that psycholinguists look at more closely than most. Researchers break language acquisition into two categories, first-language acquisition and second-language acquisition.
First-language acquisition is a universal process regardless of the language an individual will begin to speak. First-language acquisition starts with babies cooing, crying and babbling which is known as the pre-linguistic stages of first-language acquisition (Parker & Riley, 1994). Almost all humans will be fluent in a language before the age of five, which is remarkable. Some claim that if a person does not acquire any language before they become a teenager, they will never do so successfully.
Second-language acquisition assumes knowledge from a first language and applies that knowledge and process as an individual goes through the steps to learning a second language. After acquiring language, it can then be comprehended.
Language comprehension is an important part of linguistics that focuses on understanding communication. In order for language to be understood it is first acquired and then interpreted. Comprehending language might seem easy, but it is actually an extremely complex process. Alone, most words only have one meaning, but when they are used to form sentences and phrases they can become misconstrued. Things such as lexical ambiguity can make comprehending language hard (Parker & Riley, 1994). However, most times comprehending your native language comes much easier than trying to comprehend a second-language. After comprehending the language an individual has acquired and is surrounded by they must finally produce language in a coherent way.
Language production is the last process psycholinguistics will observe to see how far individuals have come in fully grasping all aspects of language. Once language is obtained and understood it can be transformed in a way to communicate ideas with others. Language can be produced in a variety of ways including; spoken, written and even signed. These forms of communication allow for a positive flow of opinions to be conveyed in such a way that both parties fully understand what is being stated.
When language is correctly produced individuals can only move upward from that point by developing more skills to further their language. Even though psycholinguists cover all these processes within their field, this is not what researchers are most concerned about.
Psycholinguists specifically look at the theories behind language acquisition and how the mind aids in a person’s ability to gain language. Noam Chomsky is a famous linguist who developed a theory known as Nativism during the 1950’s. This theory embodies the fact that children will never gain the resources needed for processing language just by the things they heard, but more by how the language acquisition device works (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011). This theory supported that all people are born with a universal grammar that gives them the ability to acquire language.
Therefore, children easily pick up a language when they are exposed to its particular grammar. This innate predisposition to learn language was argued by Behaviorist, B. F. Skinner. Skinner supports the Behaviorism Theory which states people learn language through interactions with their environment. This would mean that children learn language by mimicking what they hear around them and simply repeating it (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011). Nativists believe this is impossible because without a biological component like a language acquisition device people could not learn language as quickly as they do.
Most people believe that there are some aspects of both Nativism and Behaviorism that account for how humans acquire language. There are parts of each theory that logically make sense and then some aspects that are proven wrong by obscure facts derived from other fields. This leads most individuals to take bits and pieces from both theories and develop their own opinion of how language is acquired. When drawing conclusions about Language Acquisition it is important to take into consideration what can alter this process.
Language acquisition is dependent on many factors. Age is a factor that impacts a person’s ability to acquire a language and will determine the level of difficulty it takes in doing so. Childhood is said to be a critical period for the acquisition of language. Children may also have a better chance learning a second-language than most adults. Therefore, scientists conclude it is much harder for an adult to acquire a new language.
With gender comes an additional set of pre-assumed traits that argue the higher difficulty that men have when learning. Motivation also plays a crucial role in a person’s success in acquiring a language. A person’s mind set can alter the difficulty in learning a new language which is something that supports why children are able to grasp language much better. A child learning a first or second language does not need motivation or reinforcement the way an adult does when trying to acquire a second-language.
As a person continues to learn more languages besides that of their native one, the process becomes increasingly easier. Language acquisition is an important part of linguistics because it is the first stop on the long train ride of language.
Again psycholinguists are concerned with how language is acquired, comprehended and produced. This means that the field of psycholinguistics studies the cognitive processes that makes it possible to create a meaningful sentence with vocabulary and grammatical structures. Furthermore, it explores the processes that makes it possible to understand utterances, words, text, ect. Every individual has unique character traits that allow them to function in different ways which makes this process different for everyone. Even though there are general assumptions of when certain process will occur and the order in which they will arise each case is different. These discrepancies leave room for an abundant amount of possibilities which is why further research in the field of Psycholinguists is very much necessary.
Psycholinguistics is remarkable in the sense that there are many different approaches to studying the range of topics within the field. A variety of distinct research continues to be conducted in relation to this topic. The reasons for the variety of approaches is due to the fact that there are so many factors that contribute to how language is developed and each one promotes a different direction of research.
Current research published in The Journal of Psycholinguistic Research includes: “the social and anthropological bases of communication, development of speech and language, problems in linguistic meaning and biological foundations” (Springer, 2016). Each project is extremely different, but they all tackle an important aspect of psycholinguistics. With the research that has already been conducted and the current research taking place, more about the field can be discovered and understood.
In years to come the field of psycholinguistics will expand along with the field of language acquisition. New theories and ideas are constantly arising that more accurately take into consideration the behaviors humans exhibit. There are many things we do know now that we did not know before, but there is always more to learn. “We still don’t understand…why some children have language disorders… or what happens when a stroke or a disease such as Alzheimer’s seems to wipe out a person’s knowledge of language” (Mahoney).
The future holds an abundant amount of possibilities in regards to research that can hopefully one day discover the answers to these striking questions. With the advanced technology our society has today much more can be done in observing and testing certain aspects of language acquisition which might lead to new discoveries in the field of psycholinguistics. Overall, language acquisition and psycholinguistics are two fields that are closely intertwined and will continue to have ever developing relations.