Psychology of Language, Notes 1 -- Introduction/History
A. What is psycholinguistics?
B. Why are psychologists interested in language?
C. Brief history.
D. What is the plan for this course?
E. The big problem.
II. What is psycholinguistics?
A. Psycholinguistics as a conversation killer; telling your
what you do.
B. Psycho linguistics
1. Psycho is from psychology. We aren't going to study
language, but how it's used.
2. linguistics is the study of language.
Linguists study the language itself. They generally ask
if something sounds correct, and if it does count it as part of a
Psychologists want to know about the people using the language.
is it used?; How is it used?; How is it understood?
Example of markedness.
C. What sorts of topics are psycholinguists interested in?
1. Language basics: How do you understand spoken language?;
How are sentences represented?; What happens during reading?
2. Language use: How is language used to communicate?;
How is language used to control/manipulate others?
3. Language acquisition: Where does your knowledge of your
language come from?
III. Why are psychologists interested in language?
A. Language is fundamental. If anyone has been in a place
where their language is useless (me in Bucharest), you can appreciate
it underlies everything that we do.
B. Intellectual concerns. Language is an interesting
As we'll see, no matter what aspect of language production,
or use you look at, the best explanation for what's taking place is
a miracle." Coming up with more scientific answers is a
C. Practical concerns.
1. Machine translation: During the cold war, it was vitally
important to the US government to be able to read every word published
in the USSR. The task of translating all of this stuff was
The government funded a lot of research by psychologists and computer
to automate this task. Now, business needs for machine
are still driving research in the area.
2. Language deficits: One way to treat problems with
is to understand how language is ordinarily used. If we work it
we can help people who have strokes or particular language deficits to
3. Learning to read and making that easier.
IV. Brief history. This is superficial. The
goal is to outline the origins of some of the debates that are still
A. The middle period. A bunch of influences emerged in
psychology, and these impacted the study of language. The big
1. Behaviorists: As part of their rejection of mentalism,
the behaviorists pretty much killed the investigation of language for a
few decades. Gradually, the study of language reemerged as the
of verbal behavior. Some of the things they said about language
help clarify their position:
a. Miller: "In order that we learn to respond correctly
to the word 'chair' it is necessary for another organism to intervene
reward us each time we respond correctly."
It's similar to this situation (Staats & Staats, 1963): The
kid reaches for the TV and the mother hits its hand (UCS) and says
(CS), and the baby snatches back its hand (UCR). After a few
the CS ("No!") will get the CR (pulling hand back). Now the kid
what "no" means.
b. Skinner: "In teaching the young child to talk, the
specifications upon which reinforcement is contingent are at first
relaxed. Any response that vaguely resembles the standard
of the community is reinforced. When these begin to appear more
a closer approximation is insisted upon. In this manner very
verbal forms may be reached."
In other words, the kid says "wahwah" and gets a glass of water.
But, as it gets older, parents hold out for "wahda," "watah," "and
This is not accurate. There are two concerns here, but this is
only the tip of the iceberg.
a. Brown, Cazden, and Bellugi (1969): With respect to
parents reinforce truthfulness of utterances, not how grammatically
Child: "He a girl."
Mother: "That's right."
Child: "There's the animal farmhouse."
Mother: "Wrong." (Because it's a lighthouse.)
b. Some psychologists were also concerned with the behaviorists'
use of nonsense syllables (Ebbinghaus' nonwords). The idea was if
you want to investigate acquisition of language, you had to start with
something a person didn't already know. You know a meaning for
but not for "plak." This didn't really seem like studying
2. Information theory: The phone company wanted to get
more information to go on the wires. Information theory developed
to solve that problem. The basic idea is that information comes
bits (the unit of measurement). Each bit has two values: on
or off. If you're Paul Revere, there are two ways the British
invade, so you need one bit (lantern) to transmit it. Land = on,
Sea = off. If the British could come 4 ways, you'd need two bits
(lanterns): Land = on on, Sea = on off, Air = off on, Submarine =
off off. This can extend indefinitely. If you have N bits,
you can transmit 2N unique messages. Or, N messages
be sent with log2N bits. If you can say 64 things, you
only need 6 bits...
Psychologists were very excited by this. Talking is transmitting
information and listening is receiving information. We can use
math from information theory to characterize that. Some stuff:
a. Language is full of redundancy. How much information
can a letter transmit? There are 26 letters (messages), so each
transmits log226 bits. That's 4.5 bits. But,
letter isn't equally likely, so if you take that into account, each
actually transmits about one bit of information. In other words,
3.5 bits of potential is wasted. You can see it in this example:
(1) MST PPL CN RD THS SNTNC.
I took out all the vowels, no problem.
b. The more information something transmits, the harder it is
to identify. Words transmit tons of information. If you
just 256 of them, each one transmits log2256 bits (8
You actually know about 30,000 words (if you're really smart).
around 15 bits per word. You can see the importance if you try to
fill in the word in this sentence:
(2) The witness was examined by the ________. (window)
It's pretty hard to know what's coming.
How is this applied to psychology? Imagine that you're at a loud
party and you're trying to listen. If you're talking about your
weekend, you can probably follow along pretty well because you can
the sorts of things to be discussed. If you're trying to catch
lecture, the words carry more information (they're harder to predict),
and it should be harder to understand.
Miller, Heise, and Lichten (1951): Have people identify words
from a set of two words (one bit) up to a set of 256 words (8 bits)
a noisy background. The more choices there are (the more
each word carries), the less noise people can tolerate.
3. Linguistics: Chomsky (1950s): Language can't be
acquired using the behaviorists' learning principles. A sample of
the things he said:
a. Poverty of the stimulus argument: Children don't get
reinforced for every utterance, and the sorts of reinforcement they do
receive won't explain the grammatical rules they eventually
Consider the experiment described above.
To put it another way, you know a lot of rules that you, as members
in a language community, have a hard time expressing. As an
of this, look at these two sentences:
(3) John wants him to win.
(4) John wants Bill to see him.
In (3), "him" can't be John. In (4) it can. What's the
rule that distinguishes the "him" in (3) from the "him" in (4)?
this be a result of reinforcement for these types of sentences?
b. Associations can't account for all aspects of language.
(5) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
is a sentence for most people, even though there are few (or no)
between its words. (Read some Jabberwocky)
c. Competence/performance: Chomsky puts the mentalism back
into play. Competence is what you know about language,
is what you make. Competence is entirely mental. It can be
used to introspect about language (what we did on the last
It's pretty much unrelated to what you learned in school. In
what you learned in school makes up a tiny percentage of what you know
about grammar. Example: Pluralize "blit", "blib", and
(out loud). Did you learn the pronunciation rule in school?
This distinction is going to make it hard to study children's
of language. They can usually understand grammatical forms before
they can make them. How do we know when they learned them?
C. Present: The cognitive revolution reawakened interest
in a lot of language phenomena. A short list: discourse,
sociolinguistics, gender and language, neuropsychology. The basic
idea is it's OK to study mental stuff, so we go nuts. A couple of
holdovers from behaviorism:
1. We rely almost exclusively on data. Note that a lot
of that data is based on introspection of individuals, but it seems
sciency than sitting around on your own thinking about language.
2. We still don't know much about what's going on in the black
box, so we focus on the inputs and outputs.
V. What is the plan for this course?
A. We're going to read Pinker's book. This is an
to the terms and issues. I'll lecture over material appropriate
each chapter, we'll have a few exercises and discussions. You
to read the book. But, it's light reading, and you should enjoy
B. We'll take what we know from the book and apply it to
that interest us.
VI. The big problem. You have noticed by now that
the title of the book is The Language Instinct. Pinker
come down solidly on the nature side of the nature/nurture
Obviously, I agree with him (on some things) or I would have chosen a
book. But, this is a controversial position. The other side
is that language is learned. Pinker characterizes this as the
model. The brain is a bunch of the same kind of stuff. It
general learning principles to learn everything, including
Elizabeth Bates is a major player on that side of the fence. I
try to present balanced coverage of both sides as we go along, but I
you to be aware at the beginning that there are other viewpoints.
As it stands now, choosing sides in this debate is as much a matter
of faith as it is science. The data can be interpreted as
either side, depending on how you look at it.
Psychology of Language Notes 1
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