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Psycholinguistics is - as a branch of linguistics - the science of human language ability. The content of psycholinguistics is the exploration of human language acquisition , the conditions for the production and understanding of language and the representation of language in the brain. The subject is closely linked to other scientific disciplines such as linguistic psychology , neurolinguistics and cognitive science . Psycholinguistics and linguistic psychology differ in that the former works from the point of view and with the methods of linguistics, while linguistic psychology, as a branch of psychology, builds on their theories and uses their methods. As the two approaches converge, the two terms are very often understood synonymously.

Psycholinguistics as a scientific discipline

Traditionally, psycholinguistics has three research areas:

  • The language acquisition research investigated the acquisition of linguistic knowledge, both primarily on growing children, but also in the context of second language acquisition .
  • The linguistics research asks for the acquired knowledge that a competent speakers of a language must have. This not only includes the meanings of individual words and their mental structuring, but also the ability to have principles to combine these words into higher-level units such as sentences or texts.
  • The voice process research examines the circumstances how the knowledge acquired will be successfully put to use, and therefore the tasks that must be mastered, understand a vocalization or produce to.

Psycholinguistic hypotheses and theories are developed using various linguistic data that are systematically collected. These already include the sound utterances of babbling , which have some characteristics of normal words but do not yet have a fixed meaning. Of great importance are child language data that is collected and recorded in the course of acquiring a mother tongue or a second language and then summarized in child-language corpora and made available to the scientific community. Characteristics of the language skills of adults are also taken into account in the theory development. Errors in language production and language understanding are of particular interest. Successful psycholinguistic theories are required to agree with neuroscientific , especially neuropsychological, findings. Psycholinguistic research results are also decisive for the work in clinical linguistics .

Psycholinguistics and its neighboring disciplines

There is no general agreement as to whether psycholinguistics should be included in general linguistics or applied linguistics , since the terms general and applied in this context are sometimes understood differently. On the one hand, psycholinguistics is considered a "general" discipline, as its results should be general, i.e. valid for all people, regardless of the individual speaker, on the other hand, psycholinguistics is seen as an "applied" subject, since it is the study of language in its application and the results of which are important in the context of applied subjects (clinical linguistics, preparation of language proficiency tests, etc.).

In any case, psycholinguistics differs from theoretical linguistics in that it explicitly asks about the psychological mechanisms that make language processing possible. In contrast, theoretical linguistics examines the structures of natural languages without taking such processes into account.

Neurolinguistics began in the 19th century with the discovery of two brain regions, the damage of which leads to language disorders.

As a rule, psycholinguistics is also differentiated from neurolinguistics, with which, however, it has many points of contact. Among other things, neurolinguistics searches for neural correlates , i.e. for the brain activities associated with individual linguistic processes, and uses the dissociation method to investigate the effects of individual brain damage on language processing . Psycholinguistic research does include this data, but does not aim to localize brain regions. Psycholinguists conclude from the data collected on language disorders, reaction times, language development and language production errors, for example, that there are different systems for word recognition and syntax analysis. From the perspective of psycholinguistics, however, such an abstract psychological assertion does not necessarily require that two different brain regions can be found, each of which is responsible for word recognition or syntax analysis. Rather, the relationship between psychological and neuroscientific data is very controversial, just as it is often controversial as to whether psycholinguistics can basically be reduced to neurolinguistics.

Psycholinguistic questions are also dealt with in the neighboring disciplines of speech science and speech training .

Psycholinguistic research has worked far into cognitive science and also into the philosophy of mind . The ability to speak plays a central role in these disciplines, because on the one hand it requires numerous cognitive abilities such as thinking or memory , and on the other hand it is itself constitutive for various cognitive abilities that seem to be linguistically structured at least in part. Comprehensive psycholinguistic theories therefore often also contain hypotheses about human thinking or memory, as they are expressed in Jerry Fodor's idea of ​​the language of the mind . In addition, there is hope among many researchers that a comprehensive psycholinguistic theory could become a core part of a general theory of human cognition.

Therefore, the subject is also very close to the phylogenetic theory of language development. One does not primarily examine the language acquisition or the language disorders of an animal from that of a human individual, but asks about the course of language learning of the species over millions of years (for example by comparing the so-called language genes or their expression factors). By comparing the language phenomena in humans and animals, according to Konrad Lorenz, one can look into the back of the mirror - that is, a deeper understanding of how language has evolved over millions of years.

Linguistic knowledge


Human language ability is based on knowledge that must be available to every competent member of a language community. An example: In order to understand the sentence “Jana has loved her colleague for many years”, you have to have various pieces of information: On the one hand, you have to know the meaning of the words . However, the meaning of the word alone is not enough to understand that Jana is the subject (the lover) and the colleague is the object (the beloved). You must therefore also have grammatical knowledge ( syntax ). In psycholinguistics this is reflected by the distinction between a mental lexicon and the mental grammar . Information about the individual units is stored in the mental lexicon, and the mental grammar provides information on how these units can be combined.

But also in the mental lexicon one can again differentiate between different levels. A competent speaker needs to know several things about a word like "sun". First, of course, it is necessary that the speaker knows the meaning ( semantics ) of the corresponding word. However, it is also necessary that the syntactic properties of the word are known, such as that "sun" is a noun and feminine in gender . The syntactic and semantic information about a unit in the mental lexicon is called a " lemma " in psycholinguistics . Finally, the form of expression must also be known, i.e. the fact how a word is pronounced ( sound knowledge ) or written down ( graphematic knowledge ). This information is referred to as a " lexeme " in psycholinguistic jargon .

This rough breakdown of linguistic knowledge is plausible, but one must ask oneself whether the processing steps shown actually correspond to various psychological processes. Psycholinguistics can rely on various sources to answer this question. Various experiments and observations are available here: In neuropsychology, for example, it can be found out that patients with certain disorders only make mistakes in certain processing steps, which suggests separate processing in the brain. It is also often helpful to take a look at slip of the tongue , which in certain contexts is only mixed up on a certain level. Furthermore, one can try to selectively influence certain aspects of linguistic knowledge in experiments. A typical example is the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, which can be generated experimentally. Such a phenomenon occurs when a word is "on the tip of your tongue", ie you have access to the semantic (meaningful) and syntactic information, but do not have the phonetic knowledge. This phenomenon suggests that phonetic knowledge is actually processed differently than syntactic and semantic knowledge.


The basic idea of ​​the psycholinguistic analysis of linguistic knowledge is that the basic linguistic units are stored in the mental lexicon , which can be combined into a complex linguistic structure according to the specifications of the mental grammar. Now, of course, the question arises what the basic units in the mental lexicon look like. Are they sentences, parts of sentences, words, or the smallest meaningful units ( morphemes )?

It is easy to see that sentences cannot be the basic units in the mental lexicon. The number of possible sentences is so enormous that no one can have them all already stored. On closer inspection, the number of sentences even turns out to be potentially infinite . You can always add new subordinate clauses to sentences and thus create increasingly complex sentence structures. A trivial example results from the connection with the word "and": "He took a step and another step and another step and another step and another step ..." Since the language does not specify that only a certain one Complexity is allowed, one can potentially generate an infinite number of different sentences with such simple examples. People can understand these sentences, but they cannot have all of them already saved. Rather, these sentences must be generated from more basic units.

If not every sentence is stored in the mental lexicon, then there must be smaller units from whose combination sentences can be generated. In linguistics, this phenomenon is discussed under the heading of compositionality . The compositionality principle formulated by the logician and philosopher Gottlob Frege states that the meaning of complex linguistic structures results from the meaning and arrangement of the parts. An example: The meaning of the sentence “The house is green.” Results from the meaning and arrangement of the terms “That”, “House”, “is”, “green” and the arrangement of these words. The compositionality principle can be used to explain how people can understand sentences without having stored them themselves in the mental lexicon.

See also


  • Jean Aitchison: Words in the mind. An introduction to the mental lexicon. 4th edition. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester 2012, ISBN 978-0-470-65647-1 .
  • Ton Dijkstra, Gerard Kempen: Introduction to Psycholinguistics. Huber, Bern 1993, ISBN 3-456-82364-9 .
  • Rainer Dietrich: Psycholinguistics. Metzler, Stuttgart 2002.
  • M. Galliker: Linguistic Psychology. Francke / UTB, Tübingen / Basel 2013, ISBN 978-3-8252-4020-2 .
  • Hannelore Grimm, Johannes Engelkamp: Speech Psychology. Handbook and Lexicon of Psycholinguistics. Erich Schmidt Verlag, Berlin 1981, ISBN 3-503-01671-6 .
  • Gert Rickheit, Theo Herrmann, Werner Deutsch (eds.): Psycholinguistics: An international handbook. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2003, ISBN 3-11-011424-0 .
  • Theo Herrmann: General Language Psychology. Basics and Problems. Urban & Schwarzenberg, Munich / Vienna / Baltimore 1985, ISBN 3-541-14241-3 .
  • Hans Hörmann : Introduction to Psycholinguistics. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1981, ISBN 3-534-07793-8 .
  • Hans Hörmann: Opinion and understanding. Basics of psychological semantics. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1994, ISBN 3-518-27830-4 .
  • Hans Hörmann: Psychology of language. 2nd, revised edition. Springer-Verlag Berlin / Heidelberg 1977, ISBN 3-662-02287-7 .
  • Arnold Langenmayr: Linguistic Psychology: A Textbook. Hogrefe, 1997, ISBN 3-8017-1044-0 .
  • Horst M. Müller: Psycholinguistics - Neurolinguistics. The processing of language in the brain. UTB, Paderborn 2013, ISBN 978-3-8252-3647-2 .
  • Gert Rickheit, Lorenz Sichelschmidt, Hans Strohner: Psycholinguistics. The science of linguistic behavior and experience. Stauffenburg Verlag, Tübingen 2002, ISBN 3-86057-276-8 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Psycholinguistics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Linguistic psychology  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations