Psycholinguistics and Language

Although I am not a psycholinguist I thought I would introduce basic principles of language.

There are four main components of language: phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics.

  1. Phonology is the sounds of language.
  2. Semantics is the meaning of language.
  3. Syntax is the structure of language.
  4. Pragmatics is the use of language.

1. Phonology: language is made up of phonemes and morphemes. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language (e.g., in English /p/ is a phoneme) and morphemes are the smallest units of meaninful sounds. Morphemes may be smaller than words (e.g., -ing) or may even be words (e.g., call); the word calling is thus composed of two morphemes.

2. Semantics refers to the meanings of words. In general, semantics helps us understand the difference between hymn and him. In psychology, semantics can be important as a way for understanding people’s language functioning. A person with Alzheimer’s Disease may have difficulty coming up with words that start with a particular letter (G, for example) but would do relatively better on a task where they need to name tools. Tools or animals or sports can all be considered semantic categories and are relatively structured in our memories. People who have better memories tend to have better memory strategies than people with poorer memories have. These strategies often include semantic categorization, where things that need to be remembered are grouped into categories.Woman Talking on Cell Phone

3. Syntax is the structure of language – the grammar. In English adjectives are typically placed before the objects (nouns) they are modifying – the red ball; in Spanish the adjectives go after the modified nouns – la bola roja. Syntax can have a significant impact on the meanings of sentences: “The boy hit the ball” versus “The ball hit the boy.” Both sentences have identical phonemes, morphemes, and semantics but differ in overall meaning as a result of different syntax.

4. Pragmatics refers to the use or application of language. It is typically viewed as a social aspect of language. Pragmatics is about applying language so that others understand what you are trying to convey. For example, someone who is good at pragmatics may be able to say one thing and convey a completely different message, if needed.

Each aspect of language can develop well or poorly in humans. Brain damage or degeneration can also selectively impair one of the aspects of language. For example, a person might have intact semantics, language production (phonemes and morphemes), and syntax but impaired pragmatics (this is referred to as a word salad or Wernicke’s aphasia – where a person strings words together that may even be grammatically correct but aren’t meaningful overall).

Image by wlau1.

Language Development and TV

Time is reporting about research conducted at the University of Washington showing a correlation between watching baby videos/shows and slower language development. That is, the more time that children spend watching TV, the fewer words they know, on average.Child and TVs

Here’s a link to the article.

This shouldn’t mean parents should rule out letting their kids watch TV or even edutainment but parents should be cautious about how much their kids really are watching. Also, they need to take time to play and talk with their kids – as much as possible. Really young children (less than 6-9 months) probably shouldn’t be watching any TV, especially if it is being used as a “pacifier” for them.

Word Superiority Effect and Parallel Processing

WordsOne experiment about cognitive brain functioning is the word superiority effect findings of Dr. Reicher in 1969. In this experiment either a word or a non-word (string of letters) is flashed on a screen. The subject is asked if the stimulus contained one of two letters, say a “C” or an “E”. When the stimulus did not resemble a word (e.g., XXCX) subjects were correct in identifying the target letter about 80% of the time. When the string of letters was similar to a word but not one (e.g., FELV) the subjects also correctly identified the target letter 80% of the time. However, the interesting finding was that when the stimulus was a word (e.g., TEND), subjects were correct in identification 90% of the time. So the word superiority effect is that subjects are most accurate in identifying a target letter when it is contained in a word as opposed to a string of letters.

This lends support to the theory that there are things that we can process in parallel and that that parallel processing (or parallel activation of word and letter) can be beneficial at times (such as helping subjects correctly identify individual letters more often when the letter is contained within a word rather than in a random string of letters). In other words, the whole word is recognized before all the letters individually are recognized. This then speeds up or aids processing because there are now a couple routes, per se, to that letter; there is the visual stimulus (seeing the letter) and the linguistic information (knowing that the letter is in the word) that both are activated and help people recognize letters better.

Image by uncommonmuse.

The study of brain-injured individuals

The brain is an interesting organ. Its complexity is far beyond any other part of the body, which is what makes studying it so difficult. Individual differences affect how the brain functions – to an extent – and how it reacts to stressors, damage, or decay. When the brain is injured or dysfunctions, we can learn about its normal functioning. There have been some widely publicized cases of brain damage and the effect that damage has on cognition and life. One such case was the Terry Schiavo case that caught widespread national attention two years ago. The lessons we learned from Terry were mostly political, legal, and moral ones. What about cases where there is more than minimal higher-order brain functioning as in Terry’s case?

A number of years ago some researchers reported the case of a man who had damage to his thalamus, a structure in the middle of the brain that is viewed as a “relay center” for the brain, among other functions. In this man’s case he had an anomia (i.e., lack of ability to name) for medical instruments and terms. He was not a doctor or other health care professional, he just had great difficulty naming medically-related terms. There have been other similar cases where people have had random category naming difficulties following brain injury. It is cases like this that make the study of the brain so interesting.

Over the years there have been a number of famous brain injury patients. Gage was a railroad foreman in the 1800s whose personality and emotionality changed after a tamping rod was blasted through his frontal lobes in a horrific accident. H.M. is a man whose medial temporal lobes were removed in surgery. Following the surgery he had severe anterograde amnesia (that roughly means he doesn’t remember anything that happened after his surgery) and mild retrograde amnesia (he doesn’t remember the few days prior to his surgery either). From HM researchers learned a lot about the memory system and how the medial temporal lobes are involved in memory processes (although the theories are still under development and some ideas about how information is processed into long-term memory are controversial). Then there have been cases of people with temporal lobe damage who have lost the ability to recognize objects or people. The study of brain dysfunction is fascinating and informative. Sometimes one doesn’t know what to expect.