Element 13: Applied Linguistics

The Dark Side of Linguistics Applied

In the 1920s, Francisco Franco was the youngest general in Spain. Being conservative and a man of tradition, he was shocked when, in 1931, Spain removed the Monarchy and replaced it with a republic.

A few years later, the conservatives lost the elections, and Franco and his friends took drastic measures. They tried to take over the government with military power. They were only partly successful. What followed was the Spanish Civil War.

Franco received help from Italy and Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War lasted for 3 years. By 1939 Franco had won, but during the war, over a half a million people died, and Franco became the absolute ruler.

Hitler and Franco (Photo: bitly.com/abceshitlerfranco

Hitler and Franco (Photo: bitly.com/abceshitlerfranco

He called himself “El Caudillo,” or the Head. He controlled both the military and the state. As absolute leader, Franco acted with violence toward his political and ideological enemies. Between 200,000 to 400,000 people died in forced labor camps, concentration camps, and in executions.

Franco also enforced a strict language policy. In answer to the question, “What should we do about language?” he was clear.

For legal and government documents, only Spanish could be used. You could not use the minority languages of Catalan, Galician, or Basque for a legal document. If you did, the document was void. Spanish law also forbade the use of these languages in shop signs, road signs, advertising, and in schools. The rule was clear for all of Spain. “Si eres Español, habla Español.” If you are Spanish, speak Spanish.

Image (Spanish Wikipedia)

Image (Spanish Wikipedia)

Franco’s language policy (See Mar-Molinero, 2000) shows the dark side of what powerful people can do when they make decisions about language. Tragically, Franco decided his language policy purely by political motives. However, from an academic perspective, applied linguistics can help inform these kinds of policy decisions.

Solving Real World Problems

Applied linguists use knowledge about language and apply it in the world. According to Schmitt (2010, pg. 1), “Applied linguistics is using what we know about (a) language, (b) how it is learned and (c) how it is used, in order to achieve some purpose or solve some problem in the real world.”

With this definition, we can rethink the old Spanish language policy. (A) What do we know about the 4 main languages of Spain: Catalan, Galician, Basque, and Spanish? (B) How are these languages learned? (C) How are they used? What should we do about this for schools, government documents, advertising, etc.?

Today in Spain, minority languages have a co-official status in the whole country. For instance, in Catalonia (where Barcelona is the capital), Catalan is the language of education, and students are required to learn it in schools. Today there are 3.75 million native speakers of Catalan, and around 5 million people use it as a second language. (See Ethnologue.)

AppliedLinguistics400x290These are big issues. Though applied linguists tend to focus on language education, it is difficult to separate the principles of language learning from language policy. For example, as of 2015, the United States has more Spanish speakers than Spain. It is the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world after Mexico. If many children come to American schools that are native speakers of Spanish, how should schools manage the language education of these children?

Should we “mainstream” these students: give no attention to their first language? Or because they come to school as native speakers of Spanish, should we teach them to read in Spanish first, and then teach them to read in English?

Research in applied linguistics supports the second option. It’s easier for kids to read in a language that they already know. Moreover, after they learn to read in their L1, they can more easily learn to read in their L2 because the L1 reading skills form the basis for their L2 skills. Thus, if leaders want these children to participate in American life using English, so the argument goes, they make it easier for students to read and use English by teaching them to read in Spanish first!

Applied linguists mainly focus on these kinds of educational questions, but the field is broad. We can see the full scope of applied linguistics in the following activities as outlined by Cook (2003) and Schmitt (2010).


  • First-language education. Children study their home language or languages.
  • Second-language education. Students study their country’s official language that is not their home language, for example native Hindi speakers in India who study English.
  • Foreign-language education. People study a foreign language, for example, Japanese children who study English.
  • Clinical Linguistics: Medical professionals study how to treat speech and language impairments.
    Language-testing. Educators study how to assess language achievement and proficiency.
  • Deaf education. Educators decide on which form of sign language to use how to educate the hearing impaired.

Work and Law

  • Workplace communication: Researchers study about how language is used at work and how it affects status and power relations.
  • Language planning: Leaders make laws about the place of languages in government and education. For example, the Ministry of Education decides when children start studying English.
  • Forensic linguistics: Lawyers and police evaluate language as evidence in legal investigations. For example, a man is killed, and Joe Blow is accused of the murder. The accuser brings a written text and claims that Joe Blow wrote it. In the text, a man says that he is going to kill the victim. Linguists and lawyers evaluate the text. Do the linguistic patterns in this text match Joe Blow’s style of writing or not?

Art, Interpretation, and Persuasion

The Oxford English Dictionary (Wikipedia)

The Oxford English Dictionary (Wikipedia)

  • Stylistics: Linguists analyze the linguistic aspects of literature.
  • Critical Discourse Analysis: Critics analyze and criticize how we use language to persuade and control others.
  • Design: Designers think carefully about how they use text in design, for example in typography.
  • Lexicography: Language experts plan and create dictionaries and bilingual dictionaries.
  • Translation: Interpreters and translators make and use principles that guide how we render ideas between languages.

The Value of Applied Linguistics

What Should Every EFL Teacher Know?

Paul Nation’s Book on Best Practices in EFL Teaching

Obviously, applied linguistics deals with many issues that affect us on a day-to-day basis. Whenever we look at a text on a well-designed advertisement, whenever we look up a word in a dictionary, whenever we listen to a politician persuading an audience, we are living within the scope of applied linguistics.

Nevertheless, as stated before, applied linguistics mainly deals with languages and how they are taught and learned. And if applied linguistics is worth anything to us, it should give us insight into the best ways to teach and learn our first and additional languages.

Fortunately, there is good news. Though we are far away from making a perfect pill that gives us native-like fluency with an additional language, we do have many approaches, methods, and techniques that can help us more efficiently and effectively learn languages. For example, with the “RISE-&-GO” principle, we will look at research from educational psychology and apply it to language teaching and learning.


Cook, G. (2003). Applied Linguistics (1 edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mar-Molinero, C. (2000). The Politics of Language in the Spanish-Speaking World: From Colonization to Globalization. London : New York: Routledge.

Schmitt, N. (2010). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics (2 edition). London: Routledge.

Element Twelve: The Rewards of Reading

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. – Groucho Marx

It’s a common English phrase. “A dog is man’s best friend.” Dogs tend to love their masters without conditions. A good dog just wants to be with you. In the above quote, the comedian Groucho Marx is making a point and a joke. We see the joke in the word play with “outside” and “inside.” In this sentence, “outside” means “Besides or second to a dog, a book is man’s best friend.” But when we get to the word “inside,” we see the joke. Now Groucho is talking about being inside a dog, where there is no light and where it is too dark to read.

OutsideDog500x362Okay, it’s a silly joke. But it reminds us that books can be our friends. In today’s world, many people act like their smart phones are their best friends. They would rather text their friends, update their Facebook page, and play games on their phones. To be fair, smartphones are great, and I use mine a lot! But maybe a book can be a better friend than a smartphone. Why? For one, when we read a book, we can actually be with the author and the characters in the story. I may never meet J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter stories. I may never meet my favorite singer, Bob Dylan. I will never meet Gandhi, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, and many other people that I admire. But I can meet them in books about them and the words they have written.

The author C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” With a good book, you can sit in a comfortable chair all by yourself and enjoy a wonderful evening. If you are reading a good story, you might forget about the time; you might even accidentally stay up way too late because you entered the world of the characters and the mind of the author. Readers often say that they enter a state of “flow” when they read (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). With flow while reading, we experience focus, joy, clarity, motivation, and timelessness (forgetting about the time). One simple way to explain this is that reading for pleasure is like play. In fact, it is play.

Reading Extensively

Though we can honestly say that pleasure reading is play, we can experience many other kinds of rewards from reading besides enjoyment. Of course, we can get these rewards when we read in our native languages. But language learners can also reap many rewards from what we call extensive reading (ER).

For language learners, ER has three rules. The first rule is “Read easy.” You should know 95% to 98% of the words in a text. This helps you read without a dictionary and makes reading more enjoyable. ER books are graded into levels, so you can find books at the right level for you. The second rule is “Choose freely.” You are free to choose what you want to read. The third rule is “Read big.” This means read a lot! What happens when you follow these rules? You get results!

Dr. Hitoshi Nishizawa teaches English at the Toyota National College of Engineering. His students improved their English just by doing ER. Students who read 3 million words increased their TOEIC scores as much as those who studied abroad for one year in an English speaking country.What is more, students who read 6 million words improved more than those who studied abroad for one year! This shows that ER can equal or even beat study abroad! Reading 3 million words in one year is challenging, but you can do it in 45 minutes a day, or in 2 years, you can read 3 million words in about 20 minutes per day.

ER, Traditional Study, and Literacy

Now, some people doubt that ER can be so effective. “English requires complicated study,” they say. “Maybe ER works, but traditional study, such as language drills, or deliberate grammar study is more effective.” But that simply is not true. Research by Dr. Beniko Mason (2011) shows that ER alone can improve TOEIC scores around 0.75 points per hour. In some cases, readers improved 3 times faster with ER than by traditional study.

ER can improve your English skills, but reading still does much more. Reading also increases global wealth, health, and equality for women. If a girl is born to a mother who can read, that girl is twice as likely to live past the age of five. If all children in poor countries could learn basic reading skills, 171 million people could leave poverty behind.

Literacy — the ability to read and write — can defeat poverty. Perhaps no one is working harder on this problem than Mr. John Wood. Formerly a top executive at Microsoft, Wood left his high-paying job after a life-changing experience. While hiking in Nepal, Wood visited a village school. He loved books, so he asked the headteacher to show him the library. But to his surprise, the library had no books! Wood asked, “Where are the books?”

The teacher replied, “We don’t have enough money. We can’t buy books for the children.” Wood remembered his childhood, his weekly visits to the library, and reading with his mother and grandmother. The teacher spoke again. “Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books.”

John Wood and Room to Read

One year later, John Wood returned with 3,000 books. He saw the joy on the children’s faces; he saw the hope in their eyes, and he was moved. Eventually, he left his job at Microsoft to start an organization that brings books to children. Today that organization is called Room to Read. Room to Read has built 18,689 Literacy Program Schools. It has delivered 18 million books, benefiting 10.7 million children.

Wood says, “If we don’t reach these young children, we plan their poverty.” That’s why in 2014 John Wood and his team raised 42.9 million dollars in cash donations for Room to Read. The money will buy books and build libraries for children. It will help little girls and boys stay in school. Room to Read provides native-language books for children. Then, after students learn to read in their first language, they learn to read in English. John Wood explains: “English is the uniting language in the world. If you speak English, you can speak to 3 billion people.”

Reading is Smart

Learning about Room to Read, we see that literacy and reading are keys to international development, but reading does much more than that. Reading also makes you smarter. It builds knowledge and skills that help you live. This useful knowledge is called general or “crystallized intelligence,” and studies show that reading builds it.

Reading builds your verbal intelligence. Strong readers have bigger vocabularies than those who read little. Books use rarer words than television and adult conversation. Thus, reading is more important than listening and speaking for growing vocabulary. Reading builds your social smarts. By reading good fiction, you can better understand your feelings and the feelings of others. This is called “emotional intelligence,” and research shows that reading good fiction improves it.

Reading can get you a better job. An Oxford University study showed this. High school students who read outside of school were more likely to get managerial or professional jobs as adults. Reading was the only out-of-school activity to explain this difference. Reading makes you smarter. It gives you word power. It can help you to get a better job. Reading increases wealth, health, and equality in the world. And extensive reading can greatly improve your English!

But Reading is Boring!

Even if we know about the rewards of reading, some people still say that “Reading is boring!” This is true. There are many boring books in the world. But there are also many wonderful books and stories. The BBC reports that the Harry Potter books have sold over 450,000,000 copies. If these books were not really interesting, they would not have sold this much. The key then is to find the books that you like. If you haven’t found the joy of reading, then try comic books, books for children, science fiction, murder mystery, or love stories. Just be sure of this: an amazing book is waiting for you. You just have to find it, and when you do, you can begin to reap the rewards of reading!

Note: This is an updated and revised version of an article I wrote for the Asahi Weekly, published June, 29, 2014. 


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Mason, B. (2011). Impressive gains on the TOEIC after one year of comprehensible input, with no output or grammar study. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 7(1), 1–5.

Element Eleven: Stylistics and Story

Element Eleven: Stylistics and Story

Just like every night, the servant’s bell rang exactly at 7 o’clock. It was time. The Master wanted his wine. The servant prepared it and carried it to his Master. He set the glass and bottle of red wine on a small table, next to where the Master was sitting. The Master said nothing. The servant turned and left the room. A few minutes passed. The Master opened the bottle. He poured the red wine into the glass. He held the glass to his lips, and he drank. But in the next instant, the Master dropped the glass. It broke on the floor, shattering the silence in the room. And then, without even saying one word, the Master fell over dead. 

MasterWine400x290In the above lines, we read the beginning of a story. But what exactly is a story? Academic writers tend not to tell stories. Rather they write discourse that (a) describes the way things are or that (b) explains ideas and facts, or that (c) argues a claim, using logic and reasoning. In Element Ten, previously we looked at how poets use language artistically to create images and emotions with rhymes and rhythms. For stories, we may use these forms of discourse, but storytellers mainly use a form of discourse called narration. We have seen how stylistics is a linguistic analysis of literary texts. Now in what follows, we will look at a linguistic analysis of story, which we can call story grammar.

Event Structure and Discourse Structure

Brewer and Lichtenstein (1980) discuss how authors structure events to create surprise, suspense, or curiosity. In the above story, the writer structured the events to create surprise. Here are the basic events. (1) An event happened that we do not see. (2) A servant gave wine to his Master. (3) The Master drank the wine. (4) The Master fell over dead. We are surprised because the story gave us no reason to think the Master would die. To create suspense, we can structure the discourse like this. (1) The servant put poison in the wine. (2) The servant gave wine to his Master. (3) The Master drank the wine. (4)  An event happened that we do not see. Here we have suspense because we do not know event (4). We don’t know what is going to happen next. There was poison, but will the Master die or not?!

Of course, now we can see all four events. (1) The servant put poison in the wine. (2) A servant gave wine to his Master. (3) The Master drank the wine. (4) The Master fell over dead. These four events still create suspense because we may want to know what happens next. But when the writer doesn’t tell us event (4), we don’t know if the Master dies or not, so this creates more suspense. Lastly, Brewer and Lichtenstein (1980) say that we can also structure these events to create curiosity. We simply just start the story with event (4): The Master fell over dead. “Why?!” we think. “Please tell us why!”

Basic Story Grammar

With the above simple analysis, we can see how writers structure discourse in stories to create surprise, suspense, and curiosity. But there is a much more basic and elemental aspect of story grammar that we need to understand in order to enjoy and create stories. Gottschall  (2012, page 52) calls this “story’s master formula.” It is very simple: “Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication.” That is, in story, we usually see a main character or characters, and these main characters want something. For example, Romeo and Juliet want to be together. They want each other.

After Characters, the next basic element of story is Predicament. Predicament is simply Trouble and Conflict. If our characters don’t face Conflict, if they don’t find themselves in a Predicament, then we do not care about them. Look at the story of Romeo and Juliet. They are in a terrible Predicament. Romeo’s family hates Juliet’s family. And Juliet’s family hates Romeo’s family. The families are in Conflict. But Romeo and Juliet love each other. That’s a Predicament! In order to be together, they must face many terrible troubles. Also, in the simple story above with the servant, the Master, the wine, and the death, we see the beginnings of trouble and conflict.

This leads to our third basic element of story grammar: Attempted Extrication. The word “extrication” comes from the verb “extricate,” which means to get yourself out of a hard situation or a bad place. Thus, with the third element of story grammar, we try to solve the conflict. We try to end the trouble. We work for a solution or happy ending. Notice that it says, “attempted” because not all stories have happy endings. But basically, in stories we see characters who face conflict and who try to extricate themselves from trouble and conflict.

Other authors suggest that there are more elements of story grammar. However, if we don’t see these three basic elements in a book, drama, or film, then we are not reading, listening to, or watching a story. And if a story doesn’t have these three elements, then we can say that it probably won’t be a good story. That is, good stories always have characters who face conflicts and who try to extricate themselves from that trouble. It’s that simple. But by knowing this simple fact, we begin to understand why we enjoy some stories more than others, and we can also learn how to be better storytellers as well.

Brewer, W., & Lichtenstein, Edward. (1980). Event schemas, story schemas, and story grammars. Center for the Study of Reading, Technical Report #197, 1–48.

Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: how stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Element Ten: Stylistics

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

 — Jane Taylor (1783-1824)

This well-known text was published in 1806, and most native speakers of English know the first four lines. It is a simple poem written for children. The author, Jane Taylor, used a technique of repeating similar sounds. This technique is called rhyme, and we can see rhyme in these pairs of words: star/are, high/sky, gone/upon, and light/night.

In poetry, writers use rhyme for artistic effect. Rhyming also probably helps us more easily remember poems. Poetry is a part of literature, and though literature and linguistics are very different, we can study literature using linguistics. This is the field of stylistics. With stylistics, we do linguistic analysis of texts, especially literary texts.

The Minister’s Horse

However, if we want to understand literary style, Crystal (1970) says that we first need to understand non-literary style. That is, we cannot appreciate literary style, if we do not understand how it differs from non-literary style. We can understand this basic idea more clearly by looking at a famous little story called: The Minister’s Horse.

One day a man was walking down the street. He was tired. As he walked, he passed a church. He saw the Minister of the church. The Minister was getting on his horse. The man spoke, “Dear Minister. I am very tired from walking. And I still have a long way to go. I was thinking. Maybe you could sell me your horse.”

The Minister said, “Alright, yes, I can sell you my horse.” The man gave the Minister some money and said, “Thank you very much!” “One last thing,” said the Minister. “This horse is special. I use religious language to lead the horse. If you want the horse to go, you must say, Hallelujah!” “I see,” said the man.

The Minister continued. “And if you want the horse to stop, you  must say, Amen.” “That sounds easy enough,” said the man. Then the man got on the horse, and he shouted “Hallelujah!” And sure enough, the horse began to run. Then the man shouted, “Amen!” And the horse stopped. With that, he shouted “Hallelujah” again, and he rode away. He was very happy because he did not have to walk. 

The man rode for the whole day. Finally, he reached some mountains. He went up and up, and then he came to a place where the road was damaged. He looked ahead, and he saw that the road was gone. “Oh no! The road is gone,” he said. “I will fall down a thousand feet to my death.” He cried out to the horse, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” But the horse kept walking towards the end of the road. 

“Oh my goodness,” said the man. And he cried out again, “Stop! God! Church! Please stop!” But instead of stopping, the horse started running, closer and closer to the end of the road. Finally, the man began to pray. “Dear God,” he said. “Please make this horse stop, or I will fall to my death. Amen.” And just in time, the horse stopped right at the end of the road. The man looked around. He took a deep breath. And he felt so thankful to be alive that he shouted “Hallelujah!”

Understanding Non-Literary Style

The above story is a joke, a special kind of text. However, if we want to understand this joke, we need to understand another kind of language. That is, we need to understand religious language. In the joke, for the horse “Hallelujah” means “go.” And “Amen” means stop. However, in a religious setting, we use “Amen” at the end of a prayer. It means “so be it.” And “Hallelujah!” is a joyful word that means “thanks be to God.”

Now when we understand the original meanings of the words, then we can understand the joke. The man says “Amen” at the end of his prayer. And luckily, this makes the horse stop. He had forgotten that “Amen” was the correct word to make the horse stop. And because he is thankful for not falling to his death, he says, “Hallelujah!” But he had forgotten that this word makes the horse go! So after saying, “Hallelujah,” we imagine that the horse moves again, and ironically the man falls to his death.  That’s the joke, and here’s the point. We need to understand religious language in order to understand the joke. In the same way, we need to understand non-literary texts if we are going to understand literature.

Shakespeare: Original Pronunciation (OP)

pruvvedluvved400x290Though we can look at many areas of stylistics, one of the most interesting has to do with Shakespeare and the idea of original pronunciation (OP). In Shakespeare’s poems, many words do not rhyme in modern English. However, linguist David Crystal and his son Ben have analyzed Shakespeare’s works.  They found that two-thirds of Shakespeare’s sonnets (a special kind of poem) do not work in modern English, but they do work in Shakespearian original pronunciation. Thus, OP fixes many rhymes that do not work in modern English. Moreover, when using OP, we can begin to understand Shakespeare’s many jokes of wordplay (called puns) . Because of these insights from research in stylistics, artists are now doing Shakespeare’s plays in OP, adding fresh meaning and enjoyment to Shakespeare.

Upon hearing this, we may want to ask, “How can you know how people spoke English 400 years ago?” Crystal gives three basic ways we can know this. First, 400 years ago, writers wrote about how English was pronounced. For example, the writer Ben Johnson (1572-1637) says that back then people pronounced the “r” sound after vowels, so that it sounded like a dog growling, “grrrrr.” Second, spelling is a guide to how to pronounce OP. Crystal says that spelling from Shakespeare’s time is a better guide for pronouncing English than modern spelling.

Third, there are many rhymes and word play jokes that do not work in modern English, but they do work in OP. For example, Sonnet 116 is a beautiful poem in which Shakespeare writes about the power and beauty of love. In the last two lines, he says:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

Here we see the two words, “proved” and “loved,” but in modern English these words do not rhyme. However, because of stylistic research of OP, we know that in Shakespeare’s time, these words actually did rhyme. In OP, we pronounce them like this: “pruvved” and “luvved.” With stylistics, we use linguistic tools to analyze texts, especially literary texts. And the work of scholars like David Crystal shows us that stylistics is not simply a dry analysis of literature. It can actually, help us appreciate and enjoy literary art even more.

OP. Crystal, D. (1970). New Perspectives for Language Study. 1: Stylistics. ELT Journal, XXIV(2), 99–106.

Element Nine: Psycholinguistics

A young woman was walking down the street late at night.  She heard footsteps. When she looked back, she saw four big men carrying sticks. Without warning, the men attacked her. They beat her and took all her money. Then the men ran away. The woman just lay there crying and bleeding.  After a while a psychologist passed by. He saw the woman crying and in pain. He leaned down and spoke to the young woman: “Oh My God! Whoever did this to you really needs help!”

Pun-Fart400x290This dark psychology joke points out what psychologists do. They help people with emotional or behavior problems. But the twist of the joke is this. The psychologist should care about the young woman who is crying and in pain. But instead, he cares about people with behavioral problems. He is focused on the bad men who hurt the women because they need to change their behavior.

For language, there are clinical experts who help people with language problems. A speech therapist helps people who have trouble speaking or communicating. Speech therapy is related to the psychology of language. But just as all psychologists are not clinical counselors who try to help people change, not all psycholinguists help people with language problems. Rather, more than clinical research, psycholinguists do scientific research about the relation between language and mind.

The Main Questions of Psycholinguistics

With psycholinguistics, we ask five basic types of questions. (1) How do people acquire language? (2) How do people comprehend language? (3) How do people produce language? (4) How do people store language? (5) How do people lose language? (Language loss happens when a person starts to lose their ability to comprehend or produce language.) A psycholinguist will create experiments to test these kinds of questions.

For example, let’s say we want to know how we comprehend and store words in our mental dictionary (or mental lexicon). We can design a lexical decision experiment. To do this, we can flash (a) real words and (b) nonsense words on a computer screen. We ask people (called subjects) to look at the screen and make a decision about each word that flashes on the screen. Is it a real word, or is it a nonsense word?

Then we measure two things. We measure how long it takes for subjects to decide if a word is real or nonsense. And we measure if our subjects answer correctly or not. In order for our subjects to answer, they must access their mental dictionaries. If it’s a real word, subjects find it in their mental dictionaries. If it’s not a real word, they don’t find the word.

Interestingly, in experiments, subjects access more common words more quickly that uncommon words. That is, they find high frequency words in their mental dictionaries faster than low frequency words. This teaches us valuable information about how our brains organize words. That is, in some way, we organize words in our brains by frequency.

The Psychology of Language Mistakes

It’s impossible to cover all of the key points about psycholinguistics in a short elemental essay. However, we can begin to appreciate this field when we see how it relates to our daily lives. For example, we can look at language mistakes. Even native speakers make many mistakes during an average day of speaking. Psycholinguists are interested in mistakes because mistakes give us a window into the brain and how the brain processes language.

One famous kind of mistake is called a Spoonerism. These psycholinguistic accidents were made famous by a man named  William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930). He said things like “Is the bean dizzy?” But he meant, “Is the dean busy?” In these examples, Spooner used real words, but he switched the “b” and “d” sounds. Here are a two more examples of Spoonerisms, but not from Spooner himself. “I’m going to go and shake a tower.” That’s nonsense; it should be: “I’m going to go and take a shower.” Here the “t” and “sh” sounds are switched. “This is the pun fart” should be “This is the fun part.”

One day, I was giving a talk about linguistics, and I got stuck in a Spoonerism type of loop. I said, “This is mastly; I’m mean this is monly. Wait a minute, I mean This is mastly; I’m mean this is monly. Um. . . Hold on a second. This is mastly; I’m mean this is monly. Hold on. I think I got it. This is mostly and mainly about learner strategies.” In this case, I was switching the “a” for the “o” sounds. Maybe I should have been embarrassed, but it was too interesting from a psycholinguistic point of view to be embarrassed.

What Language Mistakes Teach Us

So what exactly do these mistakes show us about language and the mind? First, the mistakes show us that we plan phrases in advance. We can’t switch the sounds unless the whole phrase is planned first. Second, we generally only switch items that belong to the same grammatical category. The words “bean” and “dean” are switched, and they are nouns. The words “dizzy” and “busy” are switched, and they are adjectives. With “shake a tower” and “take a shower,” the verbs “shake” and “take” are switched, and so are the nouns “tower” and “shower.”

Third, these switches show us how we organize our mental dictionaries. We organize the words in our head phonologically, semantically, and grammatically. We can see this clearly in my “mastly and monly” mistake. First, the words are very close phonologically. They sound the same, starting with the “m” sound and ending with the “ly” sound. This shows how these two words belong to a similar phonological category. I meant to say “mainly and mostly,” and these words not only sound alike, but they mean almost the same thing, so they belong to a similar semantic category. Lastly, both words are adverbs, ending in “ly,” so they also belong to the same grammatical category. In short, this simple mistake gives us rich information about how we store words in our minds.

In short, psycholinguists study language and the mind. It’s a big field, and scholars can spend their whole working lives doing psycholinguistic research. With their work, psycholinguists help us see how we acquire, produce, store, comprehend, and lose language. Of course, using language is an amazingly complex process. But we usually take it for granted. Therefore, psycholinguistics can help us see more clearly how language works in our brains, and so we can more fully appreciate the amazing wonder of human language.