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.