Psycholinguistics

 

           Psycholinguistics is a recent branch of linguistics developed in the sixties. It is the study of interrelationship of psychological and linguistic behaviour. It uses linguistic concepts to describe psychological processes connected with the acquisition and use of language. As a distinct area of interest psycholinguistics developed in the early sixties, and in its early form covered acoustic phonology and language pathology. But now-a-days it has been influenced deeply by the development of generative theory, and its most important area of investigation has been language acquisition. It has raised and has partly answered questions such as how do children acquire their mother tongue? How do they grow up linguistically and learn to handle the registral and stylistic varieties of their mother tongue effectively? How much of the linguistic system that they ultimately command are they born with and how much do they discover on the basis of their exposure to language?

          In its early form, psycholinguistics covered the psychological implications of an extremely broad area, from acoustic phonetics to language pathology. Now-a-days, certain areas of language and linguistic theory tend to be concentrated on by the psycholinguist. Much of psycholinguistics has been influenced by generative theory and the so-called mentalists. The most important area is the investigation of the acquisition of language by children. In this respect there have been many studies of both a theoretical and a descriptive kind. The descriptive need is impelled by the fact that until recently hardly anything was known about the actual facts of language acquisition in children, in particular about the order in which grammatical structures were acquired. Even elementary questions as when and how the child develops its ability to ask question syntactically, or when it learns the inflectional system of its language, remained unanswered. And a great deal of work has been done recently on the methodological and descriptive problems related to the obtaining and analysing information of this kind.

          The theoretical questions have focused on the issue of how we can account for the phenomenon of language development in children at all. Normal children have mastered most of the structures of their language by the age of five or six. The generative approach argued against the earlier behaviourist assumptions that it was possible to explain language development largely in terms of imitation and selective reinforcement. It asserted that it was impossible to explain the rapidly or the complexity of language used by the people around them.

          Psycholinguists therefore argue that imitation is not enough; it is not merely by mechanical repetition that children acquire language. They also acquire it by natural exposure. Both nature and nurture influence the acquisition of language in children. Children learn first not items but systems. Every normal child comes to develop this abstract knowledge of his mother tongue even of a foreign language to some extent for himself, and the generative approach argues that such a process is only explicable if one postulates that certain features of this competence are present in the brain of the child right from the beginning. 'In other words, what is being claimed is that the child's brain contains certain innate characteristics which pre-structure' it in the direction of language learning. To enable these innate features to develop into adult competence, the child must be exposed to human language, i.e. it must be stimulated in proper to respond. But the basis on which it develops its linguistic abilities is not describable in behaviourist terms.' (David Crystal, Linguistics, p. 256)

          The boundary between psycholinguistics and linguistics is becoming increasingly blurred as the result of recent developments in linguistics which aim to give psychological reality to the description of language. Chomsky regards linguistics as a subfield of psychology, more specially the cognitive psychology. His view of linguistics, as outlined for instance, in his book Language and Mind, is that the most important contribution linguistics can make is to the study of the human mind. The bonds between psychology and linguistics become more and more strong by the extent to which language is influenced by and itself influences such things as memory, motivation, attention, recall and perception.

          Similarly psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics are coming closer since the realization that merely grammatical competence is not enough; we have to aim at communicative competence too. Whereas psycholinguistics is language and the mind, sociolinguistics is language and community. In other words, psycholinguistics can be said to deal with language and the individual, and sociolinguistics with languages and society.

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