Research / What is psycholinguistics?

What is psycholinguistics?


Psycholinguistics deals with the relationship of language and thinking. It studies what processes go on in our brain while speaking (speech production) and how we are able to understand speech (speech perception). The examination of the mental lexicon, (that is our 'mental dictionary') also widens our knowledge in connection with speech production and speech perception. Psycholinguistics also covers the issues of child language, that is how babies acquire their mother tongue. A marginal area of study is bilingualism, which deals with those individuals and communities that speak two (or more) languages. Neurolinguistics focuses on cerebral processes during speech, as well as on the effects of different brain injuries and the relationship between linguistic competencies.

Psycholinguistics is a relatively young branch of linguistics, it appeared somewhere at the beginning of the 1950's. Naturally, psycholinguistic type of researches had been carried out before as well, both by scientists and laymen, e.g. doctors, philosophers, psychologists, linguists.

Psycholinguistics studies these phenomena by means of observation and experiments.  Observations can be used easily for research on speech production, paying attention to so-called blocking phenomena – e.g. when we cannot find a word ('tip of tongue' phenomenon), sound errors (instead of "snow flurries" we say "flow snurries".). Experiments  include, among others, EEG (electroencephalograph) and MR (magnetic resonance) examinations, and word-association tests.

The most well-known layman psycholinguistic experiment dates back to Pszammetikhosz pharaoh. He was looking for the answer of the question: which is the most ancient language? He believed that if he brought up children in isolation far from the community, when the children would utter something, they would use the most ancient language. He committed two children to the care of sheep shepherds, who were not allowed to talk to the children. After two years the children uttered the word 'békhosz', which means bread in Phrygian language. According to the pharaoh, thus, Phrygian was the most ancient language. Of course this was a misbelieve: the children heard the sheep baaing and the shepherds talking (many words of Greek origin) and when they uttered something they imitated them. This is sheer coincidence that this utterance had a meaning, and specifically in Phrygian. These children - who are brought up in isolation, and are exposed to human language only when they are older - are called wolf children. 

Some interesting facts from the world of psycholinguistics

- If we would like to utter all the possible sentences that are made up of 20 words, it would take 100 000 000 000 years (in English).
- All Hungarian children first acquire the suffix of the object (-t)
-We hear sounds between 20 and 20000 Hertz. As we grow older, we lose the ability to hear the higher (20 000 Hertz) sounds first. It is made use of by mobile ringing sounds, which are about 20 000 Hertz, so the children can hear them, but their teachers cannot
- The neuron cells of the brain, to our present knowledge, would make up a nearly  400 000 km long neuron-tract. (This is more or less the distance between the Earth and the Moon)
- Too slow speech hinders understanding a text just as much as too rapid speech. With too slow speech we have time to associate more, to daydream.
- If we cannot remember a word, it is much easier to ‘look for it’ by the sound rather than by the meaning. It is well-known that in this case we can more or less recall the sound pattern, the melody of the word. E.g. when we try to remember the word ‘knife’, we will find it sooner by hearing ‘knight’ of ‘wife’ than by the pair ‘knife – spoon’, ‘knife – cutlery’.
- In the middle of the 20th century the average pace of speech was 80 word/min, while in the  21st century it is 120 word/min.
- One person’s vocabulary (mental lexicon) can contain as much as hundred thousands of words.