5 interesting insights from psycholinguists on language acquisition

Psycholinguistics is the branch of linguistics informed by psychology. Originally the terrain of philosophy and education, it has become an established focus of the hard sciences, with biology, neuroscience, information science, and the cognitive sciences now contributing research to it.

A few sub-fields of psycholinguistics have grown out of these developments, including neurolinguistics and developmental psycholinguistics. Despite this wide range of foci, all branches of psycholinguistics are concerned with the cognitive faculties and processes supporting language acquisition, comprehension, and production.

In this post, we’ll outline a few ways psycholinguistics can influence foreign language learning, and provide a boost of motivation for you with some tips to help your studies.

Who invented psycholinguistics?

Initially referred to as “the psychology of language,” psycholinguistics became an established field at the end of the 19th century. Although it was studied empirically in the 18th century, it did not take off as a field until Wilhelm Wundt started a psychology laboratory in Leipzig which focused on experimental psycholinguistics.

In the 20th century, American linguist Noam Chomsky brought the influence of the cognitive revolution to psycholinguistics, introducing generative linguistics to the research community. He sought to better understand how children come to grasp the underlying grammatical structure of speech, and his research and writings have been greatly influential in pushing modern linguistics forward.

What is language acquisition?

Young boy learning a language online.

Most studies on psycholinguistics are done with children, since childhood is when native language is acquired. In psycholinguistics theory, there are two main arguments over the way language is acquired:

  • the behaviorist view; and
  • the innatist view.

The behaviorist perspective argues that language must be learned in childhood; the innatist perspective argues that humans have an innate language capacity and access to a “universal grammar.”

Chomsky helped popularize the latter view in the 1950s after critiquing B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior.

More recently, a third view called emergentism has developed, arguing that innatism is scientifically “unfalsifiable,” which means it can’t be proven true or false using the scientific method. Emergentism favors a more behaviorist view, drawing from advances in computer technology simulating language acquisition through neural network models.

What is language comprehension?

Woman learns a second language.

Language comprehension can refer to the comprehension of any given medium, from understanding spoken language to understanding written language. When it comes to the latter, there are a few theories about the way language is processed, most notably modular vs. interactive.

The modular view holds that we process syntax before we process meaning. For example, in the sentence “The evidence found by the scientist was limited,” we first read “the evidence” as the subject since the verb comes right after it, and only update our understanding once we get to the phrase “by the scientist.” This would presumably be a strategy used by the brain to reduce cognitive load.

By contrast, the interactive view argues that all available information in the sentence can be processed at any time, and when we read a sentence like the one above, we reason that a subject other than “the evidence” must be coming up in the sentence. There is evidence to support both views.

What is language production?

Language production–how we produce language–is most often analyzed through speech errors. For example, speech error studies on substitution and exchanges show that, due in part to working memory limitations, speech is planned in advance according to the core meaning one wants to convey rather than the entire sentence.

There are three phases of language production:

  1. conceptualization, or determining what to say;
  2. formulation, or translating the intention to say something into linguistic form; and
  3. execution, or the detailed articulatory planning and articulation itself.

Conceptualization is fairly abstract and has not been studied extensively; formulation is more widely researched.

5 interesting insights on language learning from psycholinguists

We learn foreign languages better the younger we are.

1. Make use of critical periods.

A large body of research suggests that we learn foreign languages better the younger we are. This is referred to as a “critical period” of language acquisition, and holds true for our native language as well. However, some research has shown that it’s possible for adults to become just as fluent in a second language as children, challenging linguists to separate correlation from causation.

2. The more languages, the better.

Linguists have found that, in general, learning foreign languages becomes easier the more languages you know. These findings bode well for polyglots or anyone interested in learning multiple languages.

There is some evidence to suggest that multiple languages may compete with one another in the brain when people are learning their third language, since introducing a second foreign language means that the brain now has to do more work beyond simply separating “foreign language” from “native language.” That challenge seems to subside, however, with greater mastery.

3. Talk about grammar and structure.

Explicitly describing how language works can help speed up the foreign language learning process by aiding comprehension and solidifying new information in memory storage.

So, try to not only memorize the rules of grammar in your target language, but also discuss them with your peers and instructor.

4. Your second language will improve your first language.

By studying cross-interaction between first and second language use, researchers have found that people who learn a foreign language experience changes in the use of their native language. This leads to cognitive changes and benefits over time, especially over lifetime use.

5. Acquiring a large vocabulary is not enough.

Although it’s true that words can’t be recognized if they remain unknown, psycholinguistics suggests that fluency in a foreign language is about attentional capacity just as much as explicit vocab building.

Immerse yourself in a foreign language.

Because the brain has a limited attentional capacity for informational processing, it’s best to focus on automatizing word retrieval as much as possible in order to reduce cognitive load. This is a large part of what makes mastery and fluency in a foreign language possible: essentially, to what degree the language has become “second-nature.”

Loved this article? For more in this series, learn what linguistics is and how it can influence language.

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