language and mind

May 15, 2011

Not just a naïve rebel

Filed under: language, language processing, language use — Tags: , — teresapelka @ 10:22 am

Before I went to the university, I looked up a few things. Psychology, applied linguistics, translation, etc. I always knew I wanted to study American English – but this is broad, wide, and deep. What specifically? Right when I found out about psycholinguistics, I knew that was the thing.

Not that I’d be especially fond of rebels and psycholinguistics is a kind of a rebel. Psycholinguistics takes both the brain and the mind into account, placing thinking with the pragmatic language reality – and I like to think. In short, if a rebel, then one with a cause. Against what? Against behaviorism.

Would the two, psycholinguistics and behaviorism, have anything in common? Yes. The thing in common would be the notion of language behavior as physically manifest to an observer, that is, spoken or written. Your language behavior is what you say or write[1]. Obviously, it would take some extreme thought police, making extremely little sense, to try to language behavior different

Well, and that would be about all. The two might disagree already as for the notion of a body language: ‘Where is the syntax?’ a psycholinguist might ask. The ‘cognitive revolution’, as it got termed in the 60s, started with Noam Chomsky’s critical review of Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s book, ‘Verbal Behavior’ (1957). What caused the rebel?

B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist to believe that language could be conditioned in humans. In other words, your parents or pals talk to you and this conditions you. You learn from your environment. Noam Chomsky says that language is part inborn. You do need a speaking environment, but you generate speech, not just repeat what you have learned from others.

I do not like absolutely everything that Noam Chomsky has written – for example, I do not like his ‘language acquisition device’, I prefer the traditional terms of language regions or areas. I agree however that humans are definitely capable of speaking on their own, and this ability comes from the properties of their brains.

With this regard, psycholinguistics would not be a purely mentalistic approach, as it happens to be associated. You refer to your human brain for your human language and thinking. You refer to the reality of your brain for your real mind. Psycholinguistics does deserve its distinct name – it also happens to be termed language psychology or psychology of language.

Would a psycholinguist dissect your brain to get to know language better? Not probably. The notions of competence and performance would be in the way. Competence means your language know how. In simple words, if a child or a foreigner would ask you why you say things like this and not like that in your language, you’d need to give it a little thought to explain. Most probably, you would yet know, why.

Importantly, this competence refers to live people’s language skills and it should not be limited or impeded for a proper language study. As for authors to have lived in the past, their works as preserved are records of their performance. Again, if you happen to catch the common cold, your competence might be not much influenced. Your running nose would change your performance, however ;)

I wrote and defended my master’s on the role of feedback in language processing. I posited it approximates a drive. The drive would be of relevance to the self-preservation instinct, nothing to do with Freud’s theories. Someone might say, ‘You put a guy in a dark room with nothing to do and they are going to start talking to themselves. It’s a drive. The guy is gonna follow an urge.’ I’d say, ‘OK, an urge, moreover coming from his or her brain’s wanting to stay together, yet – in deprivation.’

Deprivation limits competence, not only performance[2]. Data coming from deprivation will not be representative of unimpeded competence. They will not meet the requirements of the discipline and, again, common sense. Therefore, no brain slicing and no dark rooms. If you want to study language behavior reliably, you give a guy a hundred dollars to ask a few minutes of their time – yes, this would be more common sense as for real linguistics, not artifacts. :) The role of feedback in language processing may approximate a drive in normal, non-deprivational circumstances.

Finally, psycholinguistics will differ from behaviorism on meaning – probably the most important matter in linguistics. A behaviorist will say that you could be conditioned or ‘semantically primed’. In other words, someone shouts at you real loud saying ‘one’ for example, and you ‘learn’ one meaning to the word to stay with it ever after. A psycholinguist will view meaning as synchronously processed within a syntactic structure. To ‘give one a dor’ or ‘dot and carry one’?

The cognitive rebel has had a few points to make, the issues being cognitive, not emotive or resulting from a naïve intent to deny the objective, observable reality, as behaviorism happens to be misrepresented.

(The tidings are that the online Merriam-Webster definitions of psycholinguistics might be revised. Please remember not to tell absolutely anyone ! ;))

The author is an M.A. in American English specialized in language psychology.

Please see ‘Ain’t no inborn heartache here’ if interested in the innateness hypothesis.

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[1] Importantly, you take the language standard to be the norm. For example, forced locution would not belong with the standard individual language behavior. In other words, if someone puts a gun or any other implement to your head and makes you say anything, the language production may not be used to evaluate your language standard – probably quite common sense.

[2] Obviously, gagging someone would not prove that they cannot speak. Still, you could not say that their language competence remains the same. Stress limits language competence functionally – it may be back to its norm after the person becomes released.

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