1.4 Themes and Variations

Language is a multifaceted attribute of humanity. Indeed, while we consider language in terms of speech, most of our use of language is in the form of an internal monologue within our own minds. In addition, sign language is also as much a of a language as spoken language. Sign language is not just a set of gestures any more than spoken language is just a set of sounds. The way in which the sounds are organised, how they fit together to form words and meaning as well as the order of the words in an utterance are all amazingly complex subjects that we will touch upon in this book.

We also need to contend with language in its visual form. The written word allows us not just to communicate as usual (across space) but also across time. I can understand (or at least try to understand) what a poet or scholar was thinking thousands of years ago by reading what they wrote. This power to record language allows us to transcend the limitations of nature and transmit our ideas through the generations independent of biological constraints.

Living Language

  1. Make a list of the many ways in which you use language in daily life.
  2. Imagine how you might accomplish these tasks if language was not available to you.
  3. Consider how language may have helped us survive in our ancestral past.

This book will revolve around five overarching themes. First, we will try to immerse ourselves in the basics of linguistic theories relevant to the exploration of psycholinguistics. Any understanding of the cognitive processes involved in language must first establish a thorough understanding of the linguistic ideas that underpin its study. This theme will be divided across the various chapters but will mostly be found in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

The second theme will explore the various processes involved in language processing and how they interact. For example, does our ability to read influence how we speak? Does memory play a role in how language comprehension and production occur?

The Third theme will be the exploration of the various theories and models that are employed by psychologists to understand language. For example, how do we understand language production? What are its stages? If we speak more than one language, does that mean we need to have separate mechanisms to process those languages or do they overlap? Do we use the same set of mechanisms to process words we know and novel words that we are learning? Models are a staple of the sciences, from the heliocentric model of the solar system to the various models of the atom. Psycholinguistics also employs models to illustrate how different psychological processes interact to produce human behaviour (in our case, language).

Fourth, we will explore what evidence exists to support these theories and model. Afterall, we can have an elegant model that explains some psychological process and while it may make sense to us, without evidence we have no idea whether it exists in the real world. Sometimes the model evolves from existing data and sometimes the model precedes the evidence. For example, Copernicus proposed the heliocentric model for its elegance and simplicity but the real evidence to support the model didn’t arrive until much later with Kepler and Galileo Galilee. Similarly, psychologists may propose models that appear to make sense and then modify them as the evidence appears from numerous studies. The evidence that we will look at will range from observational studies, experimental data, computational models and speech error analysis. This last type of evidence can come from the errors made in everyday speech (meticulously gathered over the years by tedious psycholinguists) or mistakes that appear in the speech of people who have suffered some impairment to their language system through brain damage (such as a stroke). Analysing and combining these disparate sources of knowledge can yield fecund ground for new theories and models for psycholinguists.

Finally, this book will explore how all of the preceding themes can be enriched by the inclusion of diverse languages and particularly the Indigenous languages of Canada. Psycholinguistics has been dominated by the study of European languages as linguistics has its origins in the comparative studies between Western languages. Even though the recording and analysis of Indigenous languages was conducted in earnest by some linguists, this was always as a way to show the contrasts between these languages and the language of the colonizers. This is regrettable because the diversity of languages across the world can provide us with new clues to how language and cognition work. For example, do the languages we speak influence the way we think and behave? Analysing a small set of language with very similar cultural and historical backgrounds (as is the case with the languages of Europe) may not allow us to answer such questions. By opening ourselves to the rich linguistic treasures that are spread across Canada from English and French to the many languages of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, we can truly appreciate the possibilities of language as a human universal.



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Psychology of Language Copyright © 2021 by Dinesh Ramoo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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