Psycholinguistics/History and Major Theories

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Language is an integral part of our society, and the way we live our lives. It is an irreplaceable aspect of every culture, and it helps make us unique as individuals. For these reasons, it is important to learn and understand the long and detailed history and theories of psycholinguistics. The works of Wundt, Gall, Lordat, Broca and Wernicke, as well as the groundbreaking discoveries that they and many others made in the field of psycholinguistics have helped pave the way for an extremely advanced knowledge on the subject.

Key Contributors[edit | edit source]

Wundt[edit | edit source]

Wilhelm Wundt is known as the "father of experimental psychology" and the founder of the first experimental psycholinguistic laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. Wundt claimed that there is a special field of study dealing with the link between the mind and the body. Some scientific methods that had been promising in German physiology could now be applied to some issue that had been beyond the scope of experimental science. Wundt limited scientific psychology to only those inner phenomena which can be studied using the methods of objective and experimental science. Wundt used language as a means of studying the mind. He wrote at length about language acquisition, comprehension, production, sign language, and reading, all of which remain topics of interest today. Wundt developed a theory of speech production using the sentence as the unit of analysis. He thought of production as a sequential process that begins with a complete or whole thought that becomes sequentially organized and articulated. The comprehension process was the same as production, but in reverse, proceeding from sound segments to the complete thought.

Gall[edit | edit source]

Franz Joseph Gall made a notable contribution in psychology in that he helped push the hypothesis that there was localization in the brain into the mainstream. Gall was a neuroanatomist and physiologist and he came up with an idea known as cranioscopy, or what is now commonly referred to as phrenology. Phrenology, a pseudoscience, was the idea of assigning personality types based on physical characteristics. For example, a condition such as hypertelorism (the abnormal separation of organs, such as the eyes being abnormally far apart) could be attributed to homosexuality. For Gall, twenty-six or twenty-seven distinct areas, or organs, were represented on the surface of the brain. His followers increased this number, but the basic idea remained the same: Over or under development of any of these areas would, obviously, alter the shape of the skull, making it possible for a skilled bump-reader to determine the strengths and weaknesses of any particular individual's mind (Juckes, 126). This idea wasn't particularly helpful, and gave people in higher classes the idea that people were "inferior" to them based on disabilities, or other physical maladies. Nowadays, even though the idea of phrenology has been dismissed by the academic mainstream, their basic claim of localization of function in the brain has been vindicated (Clarke and O'Malley, 1968).

Lordat[edit | edit source]

Jacques Lordat was a doctor and professor of anatomy and physiology at Universite Montpellier in France. After a stroke at the age of 52, he reported that he could not get his words out. He called his problem verbal amnesia, or alalia. This was also one of the first self-reports of what we know now as aphasia. Since he was a doctor, which most likely allowed him to report in detail what he was going through. During this period, Lordat elaborated on a theory of ten acts which lead from thought to sound emission. Lordat defined alalia as a disorder of the material transformation of ideas into sounds, corresponding to impaired remembering of previous sounds stored into memory, together with a dysfunction of the syntactic organization of sounds. Lordat also insisted on the integrity of his intelligence and the preservation of his inner thinking, and did not need to speak. He eventually recovered from his aphasia, and died 45 years after his stroke, at age 97. (Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists, Part 3).

Wernicke[edit | edit source]

Karl Wernicke was an influential neuropsychiatrist and dealt with all mental illnesses that resulted from defects in brain physiology. He made major discoveries in brain anatomy and pathology, but one of his major findings was that abnormalities could be localized to specific regions of the cerebral cortex and thus could be used to determine the functions of those regions. Wernicke was one of the first to conceive of brain function as dependent on neural pathways that connected different regions of the brain, with each region contributing a relatively simple sensory-motor activity. At the time, most scientists conceived of the brain as functioning as a single organ. Wernicke also helped demonstrate dominance by either the right or left hemispheres of the cerebrum. What Wernicke is most famous for is establishing what is now known as Wernicke's area in the brain. He was examining a patient who had recently suffered a stroke, and although the man could speak and his hearing was working perfectly fine, he could not understand anything of what was being said to him, or written words. Unfortunately, the patient later died. However, once he died, he examined his brain, and found that there was a lesion in the rear parietal/temporal region of the his left hemisphere. Wernicke concluded that this region played a vital role in speech comprehension, and that region of the brain is now called Wernicke's area. Wernicke called the syndrome that the patient had sensory aphasia, however it is now known as Wernicke's aphasia. (Encyclopedia of Psychology).

Broca[edit | edit source]

Paul Broca was a French physician, anatomist and anthropologist, who worked on a whole host of topics in the medical community such as the histology of cartilage and bone, cancer pathology, the treatment of aneurysms, and infant mortality. However, Broca is most famous for his work of speech research and the role that the brain plays in speech. Broca is most well known for the establishment of the Broca's area in the brain. Broca was referred a patient by another doctor. That patient could only say one word: "tan," and henceforth was known as Tan. Tan was suffering from gangrene and was close to death. Broca invited another doctor to examine the patient, and that doctor, Ernest Auburtin, concluded that this patient, along with other patients with similar issues, should have a lesion or "softening of the anterior lobes" (Juckes). Tan died shortly after, on April 17, and the following day Broca presented Tan's brain at a meeting amongst other experts. Broca, and a few other doctors, found that Auburtin's prediction of lesions of the left frontal lobes were correct, and that part of the brain became known as Broca's area. Nowadays, a person with Tan's symptoms is deemed to have Broca's aphasia (Juckes). Essentially, patients suffering from Broca's aphasia know what they want to say but can't get it out. However, there has been recent research that has questioned the importance of Broca's area, since there are cases that have brought to light the fact that some people's speech is completely unaffected after the removal of Broca's area. More importantly, Broca has left behind an immense legacy and a footprint that will last forever in the psychological field. The discovery of Broca's area revolutionized the understanding of speech production, and more recently, lesions in that area are thought to cause stuttering and speech apraxia.

Piaget[edit | edit source]

Jean Piaget was a French developmental psychologist who played an extremely influential role in how we understand development in children. Piaget is most famous for introducing his four stages of cognitive development. The first of the four stages is the sensorimotor stage, which occurs from ages 0–2. According to Piaget, in this stage, infants construct an understanding of the world by coordinating sensory experiences (such as seeing and hearing) with physical, motoric actions. Infants gain knowledge of the world from the physical actions they perform on it. An infant progresses from reflexive, instinctual action at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought toward the end of the stage (Santrock, 2010). The second stage is known as the preoperational stage, which occurs from ages 2–7. In this stage, the child learns how to use and represent ideas by words, drawings and images. They are able to do more advanced things than an infant, however thinking is still egocentric. The third stage is known as the concrete operational stage, which takes place from ages 7–11, and is known for the child's increased use of logic. Within this stage, children learns the concepts of seriation, reversibility, and eliminates the egocentric thinking that had previously been dominant. The 4th and final stage is known as the formal operational stage, which starts at around age 11 (puberty), and ends at the beginning of adulthood. The hallmark of this stage is that the child learns how to think abstractly and use hypothetical and deductive reasoning. They begin to think the way adults would think (Santrock, 2010). This theory brought a whole new light to developmental thought, and made a big impact in the field. Additionally, according to Piaget, language assists in the development of concepts for a developing child.

Carnap[edit | edit source]

Rudolf Carnap was an influential German philosopher, member of the Vienna Circle, and advocate of logical positivism. He was famous for studying language, especially the study of logical syntax. Carnap defines logical syntax as "the formal theory of the linguistic form of that language-the systematic statement of the formal rules which govern it together with the development of the consequences which follow from these rules" (Carnap, 1928). Additionally, Carnap explained that the sentences, definitions and rules of that language are concerned with the forms of that language. Carnap wondered how those sentences, definitions, and rules are to be expressed? He wondered if we needed some kind of super language in order to do that. One of this baseline questions was "is it possible to formulate the syntax of a language within that language itself" Carnap was essentially concerned with two languages: the language that was the object of his study, or investigation, which he called the object-language, and the language in which we speak about the syntactical forms of the object-language- he called that syntax language. Carnap used symbolic languages as his object-languages and he used the English language as his syntax-language, with the help of a few Gothic symbols (Carnap, 1928). Carnap was also interested in the technique of arithmetisation of syntax. This demonstrated that it was possible to reason about languages without having to adopt a meta-language distinct from the object language.

Schools of Thought[edit | edit source]

Behaviorist[edit | edit source]

In the early 1900s, after the inception of structuralism and functionalism, another school of thought was introduced called behaviorism. Behaviorists tried to establish psychology as an empirical science with all the requisite tools of the scientific method but devoid of mental constructs like mind, thought, and imagery. Famous behaviorists such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner wanted a psychology based on observable behavior, and not mental constructs. This is where behaviorism diverges from schools of thought such as structuralism. Structuralism somewhat failed because of its reliance on introspection, because we could not trust our objective skills of introspection. Behaviorism reacted against this interest in consciousness, and behaviorists said we cannot accurately measure what is subjective and is inside your head. They claimed that psychology cannot be measured as a science. According to behaviorists, if psychology, wants to be a science, it has to study fields that are measurable. They argued that they should look at behavior instead, which is what they did. Behaviorism became firmly established in America due to the work of Watson and in Russia due to the work of Ivan Pavlov, famous for his work in classical conditioning of dogs. As part of that work, Pavlov demonstrated how an originally neutral stimulus, in this case a bell, when frequently paired with a reflex, in this case salivating to meat powder, would elicit the reflective response. In the 1950s, classical conditioning was used to account for how words acquired emotional meaning. Behaviorism helped change the way experts viewed language, however that would change at the beginning of the cognitive revolution. BF Skinner, one of the first behaviorists

Structuralist[edit | edit source]

Structuralism emerged as the first school of thought. It focused on breaking down mental processes into the most basic parts. A method known as introspection was used by structuralists to understand the basic elements of consciousness. Structuralism also played a big role in linguistics. One of the preeminent structuralists, Ferdinand de Saussure, argued in his book Course in General Linguistics, (which was composed by colleagues after he died, based on notes he composed), he analyzes not the use of language but the underlying system of language. Saussure claimed that linguistic signs were made up of two parts: the first is the signifier, which is the action when somebody says or thinks of a word. The second is the signified, which is the meaning or the concept of a word. One of the most important examples of structuralism in language comes from the Prague school of structuralism, which sought to explain why and how certain sounds of a language are connected, rather than simply coming up with a list of sounds through the practice of phonemics. For example, Japanese speakers have trouble differentiating the /l/ sound from the /r/ sound, because there is no contrast of those two sounds in the Japanese language. The aforementioned Wilhelm Wundt, who is known as the father of psychology, was one of the first people to propose the ideas of structuralism. However, structuralism only found its name under one of Wundt's students, Edward Titchener, who coined the term structuralism and also described some of its main tenets. Titchener was influenced by some of Wundt's ideas about voluntarism, as well as his theories about Association and Apperception, helped form the Titchener's theories about structuralism.

Functionalist[edit | edit source]

Shortly after the school of thought in a structuralism context was founded, another school of thought came along. Started by one of the preeminent American psychologists, Dr. William James, the functionalist school of thought was based around studying what people do with language and thoughts, rather than the structure of the mind. Functionalists such as James were pragmatic thinkers and they believed that the value of knowledge depended on its usefulness. In that way, functionalists were more able to gloss over some ideas that were not entirely useful for their purposes, whereas structuralists preferred to consider everything. Functionalism was also important because it could be applied to practical problems like those children face when learning how to read. Another prominent functionalist figure, Edmund Burke Huey came up with what might now be considered a modern theory of reading from a functionalist perspective. Huey refined the use of an important laboratory device known as the tachistoscope, which was designed to present text materials very rapidly to human subject in order to record reaction time (RT). The processes underlying reading can be explained by assuming that longer RTs reflect the difficulty or complexity of the reading material. However, one flaw with functionalism was that for some people it was not enough of a rigorous science, and some changes would be made to include more scientific aspects. Dr. William James, one of the First Structuralists

Cognitive[edit | edit source]

In the past 20–30 years, a new point of view has emerged. The cognitive science school of thought is a multidisciplinary effort that integrates research from linguistics, psychobiology, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and cognitive neuroscience perspectives to better understand how humans think and communicate. Cognitive neuroscience is a field of research that links the brain and nervous system to cognitive processing. Psycholinguists are currently incorporating research on language from, and contributing research to, cognitive psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive neuroscience. The cognitive and neuroscience frameworks for language have set the agenda for research in the twenty-first century. Ultimately, cognitive science became the study of how people perceive, organize, remember, and use information. Cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics converged to study how people produce and comprehend language.

Modern Contributors[edit | edit source]

Noam Chomsky[edit | edit source]

Noam Chomsky is one of the preeminent linguists, as well as scholars in the academic field today. Among the many things that Chomsky is known for, he is arguably best known for his critical review of B.F. Skinner's book "Verbal Behavior" (1957). Skinner argued for the behaviorist position, and his book was predicated by the principles of operant conditioning, developed two decades earlier during the behaviorist domination of American experimental psychology. Skinner viewed that speech was a product of operant learning processes such as reinforcement, extinction, and generalization. Chomsky however, famously, and successfully challenged Skinner's assumptions and claims. Chomsky's rationalist argument was that the potential for language was an inborn or innate mental capacity. He argued that children's patterns of language acquisition were too systematic to be the product of parents' operant conditioning. Chomsky's perspective changed how scholars defined language: the potential for language was universal and innate, not the product of operant conditioning. Infants were predisposed to acquire language with a built-in language acquisition device (LAD). Comparing these two accounts is referred to as the Skinner-Chomsky debate. Chomsky is also well known for his contributions to other parts of language, such as his book Syntactic Structures (1957), which challenged structural linguistics. His approach took sequences of words and he characterized them with a context free, formal grammar. Chomsky is also known for his theory of generative grammar, where he claimed that much of our knowledge of grammar was innate, and this innate knowledge of grammar came to be known as Universal Grammar.

George Lakoff[edit | edit source]

George Lakoff is a famous American linguist who has been a Professor at University of California at Berkeley since 1972. He is particularly famous for his work on the centrality of metaphor in the English language, as well as his writings on the embodied mind, which he has applied to the field of mathematics. In his book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff claimed that metaphors are conceptually constructed, and are central to the development of thought. According to Lakoff, the only time non-metaphorical thought is possible is when one is talking about or considering only physical reality. Another of Lakoff's famous theories is that of the embodied mind. When Lakoff says embodied mind, he means that even as we are conducting our most complex thinking and reasoning, we are still heavily relying on our lower level systems. He rejects that human thinking can be explained without first beginning at the lower level details. More recently, Lakoff has put more of his time into the political scene. He founded and ran a now defunct progressive think tank called Rockridge Institute. In a 2003 article, he explained why he believed the conservative Republicans were able to hold such a majority in the three chambers of government, Senate, House of Representatives and the White House. He believes that conservatives have spent decades carefully framing their ideas to sound appealing to voters, and building an infrastructure to communicate them. He claims that the way politicians frame words and phrases can go a long way to getting people on their side and to vote for them. Lakoff was a colleague of Noam Chomsky's, and helped him develop his theories of grammar. However, there was a falling out between Chomsky and some his students, including Lakoff, when they disagreed over whether syntax is independent of meaning and logic. These disputes came to be known as linguistics wars.

Steven Pinker[edit | edit source]

Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American cognitive scientist, experimental psychologist, and linguist who is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Pinker is known for writing a number of bestselling books, including The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002). In The Language Instinct (1994), he argues that humans have an innate capacity for language and somewhat agrees with Chomsky that there is a type of universal grammar. He also seeks to debunk certain claims about language, such as that the quality of society's grammar is declining, that children must be taught language in order to use it, and that different languages shape people's thinking in unique ways. Instead, he views language as something that has evolved in order to overcome the communication barriers that existed among early humans. He also suggests that language is instinctual and not a social construct, and as evidence he cites the fact that deaf babies can use sign language based on real grammar, as well as the fact that language develops without formal instruction or by parents trying to correct the child's grammar. He cites this as evidence for the innateness of language (The Language Instinct, 1994).

The Cognitive Revolution[edit | edit source]

The work by Noam Chomsky, and other influential experts such as George Miller at Harvard led to a revolution in psychology in which a transition began to occur from behaviorism to the cognitive perspective. This transition came to be known as the cognitive revolution. The cognitive revolution was crucial to the birth of psycholinguistics, and it turned attention away from behaviorism toward language and mental processes. Cognitive psychology became the study of how people perceive, organize, remember and use information. Cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics converged to study how people produce and comprehend language. There were a number of contributors the cognitive revolution in addition to Chomsky and Miller. In 1961, Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry did very important work in studying and initiating human split-brain research. Claude Elwood Shannon and Norbert Weaver developed their information theory which involved quantifying information. Eric Lenneberg also made a contribution, in his book, Biological Foundations of Language (1967), he advanced the theory that there is a critical period of language. David Rumelhart and James McClelland came out with a book called Parallel Distributed Processing (1986), in which they made models of cognition testable by using computer based connectionist models.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Overall, many important people contributed to the history of psycholinguistics. Many important theories were put forth, and much progress was made regarding the understanding we have about language and how we think about it. The different schools of thought provided a framework for how thinkers shaped their thoughts and ideas. While the thinkers did not always agree with each other, there was always stimulating discussions and we furthered our knowledge of the subject as a result of these debates. Brilliant men such as Wundt, Piaget, Chomsky and many others have changed the way we think about language in a psychological context. The cognitive revolution was a time of the breakthrough of many fresh ideas that enlightened us even more. In the future, there will surely be many more breakthroughs that we have not even pondered yet.

Learning Exercises[edit | edit source]

1.The following picture displays what type of pseudoscience? Click here What are some of the main flaws of this pseudoscience, and why does it not hold water scientifically?

2. Karl Wernicke is busy examining a patient. The patient can speak and hear perfectly fine, but when Karl would ask him questions such as "what time is it?," and "what would you like to eat?," he would stare blankly at Karl, having no idea what he was talking about. Unfortunately, the patient later died. What part of the brain was affected in this patient? Also, the term widely used to describe what this patient was suffering from is Wernicke's aphasia, but what was this disability called before it was named after Wernicke?

3. 9-year-old Tommy is beginning to reason logically. He no longer thinks that if his dog is out of sight, it is gone forever. Tommy is also now able to construct objects in sequence, and is able to use reversibility. For example, Tommy can now reason that his dog is a Labrador, and his Labrador is a dog. However, he is still having some trouble with abstract thinking. What stage of Jean Piaget's "Stages of Cognitive Development" is Tommy going through? Piaget's Stages

4. Describe the major differences between the structuralist and functionalist schools of thought. Edmund Burke Huey, another prominent functionalist. How would a structuralist such as de Saussure discuss how the different elements of language relate to each other?

5. Who are some of the main actors of the cognitive revolution, and what were some of the major linguistic breakthroughs that took place during this period? Ulric Neisser, a contributor to the cognitive revolution. How did this period of analytic innovation impact the future of linguistic study?

6. Compare and contrast Rudolf Carnap's object-language and syntax-language. What was he trying to learn through studying these two different ideas?

7. Mr. Rogers knows what he wants to say in his head, but the only words he can get out are 'pancakes,' and 'oranges.' What disability is Mr. Rogers currently going through, and what part of his brain is lesioned? The Brain

8. What were some of the claims that Noam Chomsky made when challenging B.F. Skinner's famous work "Verbal Behavior"? What positions was he arguing for, and was he ultimately successful in his challenge?

References[edit | edit source]

  • Alic, Margaret. "Wernicke, Carl (1848-1905) | Encyclopedia of Psychology | Find Articles at BNET." BNET. 06 Apr. 2001. Web. 09 Feb. 2011. <>.
  • Bogousslavsky, Julien, and M. Hennerici. "Part 3." Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists. Basel: Karger, 2007.
  • Carnap, Rudolf, and Amethe Smeaton. The Logical Syntax of Language,. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner &, 1937.
  • Jay, Timothy. The Psychology of Language. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
  • Juckes, Tim. History of Psychology. Halifax, 2010.
  • LeGard, W. T. "Piaget Versus Vygotsky." Scribd. University of Oklahoma, 2004. Web. 09 Feb. 2011. <>.
  • Rumelhart, David E., and James L. McClelland. Parallel Distributed Processing: Explorations in the Microstructure of Cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1986.