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  Psycholinguistic research (Greek psyche, ‘mind’ and Latin lingua, ‘tongue’) investigates the way knowledge of language is acquired and represented in the mind. There is a natural overlap with current linguistic theory, which aims to develop a theory of grammar that explains language as it exists in the mind. It is, however, extremely difficult to assess the plausibility of competing grammatical theories when considered as models of psychological phenomena. An immediate problem is the widespread assumption that language knowledge can be distinguished from language use. If the validity of this distinction is accepted, then the amazing speed and efficiency with which humans produce and understand speech would implicate quite separate mental capacities from those required to function as a ‘storehouse’ of language knowledge per se. Psycholinguistic enquiry seeks to characterize the content of individual components of the human linguistic capacity, and furthermore, to establish the ways in which knowledge and use of language are linked within the mind.

Problems concerning the ways in which we comprehend and produce speech have been a major preoccupation of psycholinguistic research. It has been discovered, for example, that the ability to understand speech is partially dependent on powerful perceptual strategies which provide people with expectations about what they think they will hear. As a result, the listener can guess with considerable accuracy what a speaker is going to say on the basis of the first portion of an utterance. However, these short-cuts to comprehension operate in tandem with more systematic processes, which begin constructing an interpretation of the utterance as it progressively unfolds.

A further topic of fundamental importance arises from the fact that all normal children learn to speak a language in a relatively short time and in much the same way. Children achieve the remarkable feat of language acquisition despite a conspicuous lack of explicit attempts by parents to teach their children. It has been suggested, therefore, that in certain crucial respects, language is a feature of the human genetic endowment. As a result, children would not have to learn language in the normal sense of the term, since the essential features of language are inborn.

Certainly, language is often described as the single most distinctive characteristic of human beings, which sets them apart from other animals. Attempts to teach language to intelligent animals, including chimpanzees and gorillas, have invariably produced disappointing results compared to the intricate knowledge even very young children possess about language. It has become clear that human beings do not learn a given language, be it Finnish or Swahili, simply by treating it as a puzzle to be solved via the powers of general intelligence. Most researchers accept, therefore, that human beings must be innately predisposed to acquire language. But it remains a challenge to specify precisely what aspects of language are innate. An extreme position, adopted by Chomsky, asserts that all of the essential syntactic and conceptual structures characterizing the language knowledge of an adult are present in the mind at birth. Less controversially, many researchers prefer to stress that we have an inborn predisposition to process language. In this way, infants find it easier to cope with the extraordinary complexities of language than to learn simple arithmetical operations such as multiplication and division. MS

Further reading J. Aitchison, The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics, 3rd edition; , A. Garman, Psycholinguistics.



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