LANGUAGE (Psycholinguistics)


Language may be defined as a system of symbols with commonly recognized meanings which facilitates our thought processes and enables us to communicate with one another.An increasing number of psychologists have devoted themselves to the study of language in recent years as a result of growing interest in the entire field of communication. This article will be devoted to (a) the form and structure of language, (b) the measurement of meaning (c) the relation between language and thought, and (d) competing theories concerning the acquisition of language. Other aspects of psycholinguistics are discussed under INFORMATION THEORY,SPEECH DEVELOPMENT, SPEECH DISORDERS.Form and Structure. Descriptive linguistics, the scientific study of the structure of language, deals primarily with the analysis of language into phonemes, or units of sound; morphemes, or units of meaning; and grammar, or rules of order. Every language has a basic number of phonemes varying between fifteen and eighty-five; in English there are about forty-five, corresponding roughly to the different ways we pronounce vowels and consonants. Morphemes, the smallest units of meaning, are made up of phonemes, and comprise root words, prefixes, and suffixes. There are over 100,000 morphemes in English, some of which are single (“speak”), some multiple (“unspeakable”). Rules of grammar vary considerably from language to language—for instance, the verb is always placed at the end of the sentence in German, and seldom in English. There are so many grammatical rules in English, so many ways of pronouncing the same letters and letter combinations, and so many different spellings of the same or similar phonemes that it is nothing short of miraculous that by the age of six the average child has already mastered most of the structure of the language and has developed a vocabulary of seven to eight thousand words.nd understanding of speech. Studies show that during the first two months of life an American infant produces “all of the speech sounds that the human vocal system can produce, including French vowels and trills, German umlaut and guttural sounds, and many that are describable only in phonetic symbols” (Osgood, 1953). Even though only about forty-five of the sounds used by adults are considered different enough to be called phonemes, a trained linguist can distinguish more than eighty distinct sounds—“k” in keep and “c” in cool are slightly different but are regarded as different forms, or “allo- phones,” of the same phoneme.We do not make equal use of the forty-five English phonemes. Nine of them make up more than half of the words we use; “i” as in bit is the most frequent and “z” as in azure the least frequent sound in our language. Altogether we use more consonants than vowels, particularly at the beginning and end of words; and about 60 per cent of all sounds produced in our speech are made up of only twelve consonants. This is important because consonant sounds play a larger part than vowel sounds in understanding speech. See PEAK CLIPPING.Certain combination sounds, such as “zd” and “fw,” do not appear at all in English; other combinations, such as “th,” are quite common. Linguistic restrictions on phoneme patterns help to prevent errors of interpretation and communication—that is, if we come across the combination fwame, we know at once that this is a typographical error. Studies show that we become so accustomed to the acceptable sequences that when nonsense syllables contain these sequences they are easier to remember than when they are made up of unlawful sequences—thus, tilb is easier to recall than tlib (Brown and Hildum, 1956). Experiments have also shown that even among the acceptable sequences, commonly found combinations are more quickly recognized than uncommon combinations—for example, in tachistoscopic presentations of eight- letter sequences, a combination like vernalit is more quickly perceived than a combination like utyehuld (Miller, Bruner, Postman, 1951).Phonemic classifications do not tell the whole story. Electronic devices that translate sounds into pictures show that many speech sounds are slurred or distorted. There are therefore more sounds in use than the classifications indicate. Moreover, the same word is pronounced differently in different parts of the country: compare yard or bird in Bostonian and Brooklynese. In spite of these differences, we learn to decipher the different pronunciations, primarily because we are aided by the context in which the words are used.Meaning. In language, meaning is conveyed through symbols of different types—verbal symbols, or words, which may stand for objects (“boat”), abstractions (“beauty”), or qualities (“red”); and non-verbal symbols, such as gestures (a nod of the head), directional signs, musical notes, or a five-dollar bill. Both types of symbols, verbal and non-verbal, have one thing in common: they convey meaning by reference beyond themselves, by standing for something else. The ability to manipulate symbols is the essence of thinking, since it frees us from the objects so that we can visualize, anticipate, plan, imagine, and work out problems “in our head.” Although a choreographer can plan a dance routine with little or no use of language, practically all of our thinking is carried on in verbal symbols.Most of our disagreements over meaning have to do with connotative rather than denotative words—that is, words that convey feelings, evaluations, and abstract meanings as opposed to words that merely designate observable acts or objects. Problems of meaning are particularly acute when we deal with emotionally toned words like equality, democracy, and happiness. Words of this type frequently have a profound effect on attitudes, actions, and social relationships, as indicated by the study of loaded words and stereotypes. It has been proposed that psychotherapy itself can be based on the clarification of the special meanings which the patient attaches to crucial words and expressions. Hayakawa (1959), one of the leaders in the field of semantics—the systematic study of meaning—gives this striking example of a stereotyped expression with emotional overtones: “In spite of the fact that my entire education has been in Canada and the United States and I am unable to read and write Japanese, I am sometimes credited, or accused, of having an ‘oriental mind.’ Now, since Buddha, Confucius, General Tojo, Mao Tse-tung, Syngman Rhee, Pandit Nehru, and the proprietor of the Golden Pheasant Chop Suey House all have ‘oriental minds,’ it is hard to imagine what is meant.” See STEREOTYPE, GENERAL SEMANTICS.With examples like this in mind, it is hardly necessary to point out the importance of pinning down the meaning of words and, if possible, explicating them in quantitative terms. A step in this direction has been taken by Osgood and his collaborators (1952) in their development of the semantic differential. In this technique the subject is asked to rate a word along a seven-point scale representing different dimensions. Analysis has shown that the meaning of practically any term can be expressed by using three types of factors: activity (fast-slow, excitable-calm, etc.), potency (hard-soft, masculine-feminine, etc.), and evaluation (good-bad, kind-cruel, etc.). Though this method does not embrace every type of nuance of meaning, it is helpful in demonstrating similarities and dissimilarities in conceptions of the same term (Fig. 31) and of different terms. It has also been found useful in esthetics and attitude measurement. See ESTHETICS, ADVERTISING RESEARCH.Language, thought, and culture. The semantic differential has proved a promising tool in distinguishing one culture from another—for example, the Hopi and Zuni Indians, who have much in common, have quite a different conception of words like “coyote” and CURIOSITY.Profiles of the word curiosity according to the semantic differential, a technique for measuring the meaning of words. Note that the two conceptions differ more in degree than in kind.“male” than the Navaho, who are culturally dissimilar to them (Maclay and Ware, 1961). This raises two questions: whether the world is conceived differently in societies which have languages of dissimilar structure, and whether the structure of the language itself shapes the way the world is conceived. Whorf (1956) answers both questions in the affirmative on the basis of his discovery that differences among American Indian languages are sometimes so great that it is impossible to translate an idea from one of these languages to another. One language, for example, might make much clearer distinctions than another between past, present, and future, or between nouns and verbs.Today most psychologists would accept the idea of a relationship between language and ways of conceiving the world, but would hold that the experiences of a particular people determine the linguistic forms they use, and not vice versa. The most frequently cited example is the multitude of different words for different kinds of snow (drifted snow, fallen snow, etc.) among the Eskimos. The theory has also been put to experimental test. It has been found that college students recognize colors that can be named (or “coded”) by a single word (red) more rapidly than colors that can only be described by using many words. This was also found to apply to Zuni Indians, who had difficulty remembering and recognizing colors that were poorly coded in the Zuni language but well coded in English, and the reverse (Brown and Lenneberg, 1954; Lenneberg and Roberts, 1956). Similarly, Carroll (1964) divided Navaho children living on the same reservation into two matched groups, one made up of children who spoke only English and the other only Navaho. He then found that the Na- vaho-speaking group tended to sort objects on the basis of shape and form more often than the English-speaking group, presumably because the Navaho language has far more special words for form than does the English language —for example, a single word for round- thin, and another for long-flexible.Acquisition of language. There are two major ways of explaining the acquisition of language: the learning theory approach and the generative approach. The learning theorists claim that the entire process of learning words and meanings can be explained by the principles of conditioning. They hold that the child learns to apply the word “dog” to a familiar animal by the standard process of classical conditioning described by Pavlov—that is, by hearing the mother repeat the word whenever the child sees that particular animal. Later, the child learns to produce a sound to designate “dog” by a process similar to operant conditioning—that is, the parents reward, or reinforce, his efforts by smiling or patting him when he says the word correctly.Actually, the child starts out by making a huge variety of sounds, as noted above, but only learns to narrow them down to those used in his native language when the process of reinforcement or “shaping” comes into play, and when he develops the ability to hear and correct his own vocalizations (Skinner, 1957). Deaf children begin with the same ability to produce sounds as children with good hearing, but do not progress because of the lack of “feedback.” The hearing child is also in a position to shorten the shaping process by directly imitating the correct production of words, while the deaf child is unable to do this unless he is given special instruction. See conditioning.A number of psychologists have challenged the Skinner approach on the ground that the process of conditioning cannot account for learning the complexities involved in comprehending and uttering phrases and sentences. They argue that these are not just strings of verbal responses but complex patterns which obey certain grammatical rules—and the child must have some inkling of these rules before he can recognize what other people say or produce meaningful sentences himself. The term “generative” has been applied to this theory because of its emphasis on rules for the production of language, in contrast to the more mechanical process of learning through feedback from the environment. As for choosing between the two theories, Hilgard and Atkinson (1967) comment, “It seems likely that in the long run both approaches may be combined to account for the process of language acquisition. Reinforcement may play the major role not only in the learning of individual words but also in the gradual development of grammatical rules. The child may try out various word forms and sequences, keeping only those that have been reinforced as correct. Once a rule has been learned, however, it can serve to generate a wide variety of responses without the aid of additional reinforcement.” See reinforcement.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "LANGUAGE (Psycholinguistics)," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed December 4, 2021).


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