In your study of language so far, you've likely learned about grammar, different language varieties and dialects, phonetics, semantics, and more, but have you ever wondered exactly how our brains are able to comprehend and produce language? If so, this article on psycholinguistics is for you.

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    Today, we'll learn all about the history of psycholinguistics, its relation to cognitive psychology, the different theories involved, and of course, we'll look at some examples.

    Psycholinguistics Definition

    Let's begin by looking at a definition of psycholinguistics.

    Psycholinguistics: (aka the psychology of language) an academic discipline that falls within the field of cognitive science. The discipline draws upon psychology and linguistics (surprise!) and is interested in language processing mechanisms, i.e., how the brain processes, comprehends, and produces language.

    The study of psycholinguistics can be divided into four main areas:

    • Language acquisition - How children learn their first language
    • Language comprehension - How we process and understand language
    • Language production - How we physically produce speech
    • Second language acquisition - How we learn other languages and how it differs from learning a first

    In order to understand and study these concepts, psycholinguistics (as well as most linguists, to be fair) divide the study of language into the following categories:

    • Phonetics - the study of speech sounds
    • Morphology - the study of word formation
    • Syntax - the arrangement and relationship between words in a sentence
    • Semantics - the study of meaning
    • Pragmatics - the study of meaning in context

    Psycholinguistics, Image of brain, StudySmarterFig 1. Psycholinguistics is interested in how the brain comprehends and produces language

    An example of psycholinguistics in action could be the different reading strategies teachers apply to help young learners, such as retelling and making inferences. Understanding which methods work best and attempting to answer the question, "why?" is something a psycholinguist would be interested in.

    History of Psycholinguistics

    To fully understand psycholinguistics, we must begin with its history. Discussions on the psychology of language first began towards the end of the 18th century when psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt, Edward Thorndike, and Frederic Bartlett began studying things like behaviorism, sign language, and memory. Subsequently, they laid the foundations for psycholinguistics as we know it today.

    Behaviorism: A learning theory that assumes humans behave the way they do due to conditioning and watching others.

    The term psycholinguistics itself is believed to have first appeared in the American psychologist Jacob Robert Kantor's book An Objective Psychology of Grammar (1936). In his book, Kantor suggests that grammar is a psychological phenomenon and that, as of yet, no theory in psychology has been appropriate to understand language. Kantor believed that language and grammar should be studied from an objective psychological point of view, meaning we should see them as a type of human behavior.

    Psycholinguistics Schools of Thought

    Psycholinguistics as a discipline quickly developed and split into three main schools of thought. Let's look at these now.


    Structuralism was the first school of thought to emerge within psychology and linguistics. From a linguistic perspective, structuralism is concerned with how we, as humans, apply meaning to words and images. The key theorist in this field was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who is widely considered the pioneer of semiotics, i.e., the study of signs (e.g., words and images) and signifiers (e.g., the meaning they represent).


    This image is a sign:

    Psycholinguistics, Image of dollar sign, StudySmarterFig 2. The dollar sign.

    It signifies money, more specifically, dollars. Many of us will automatically think of US dollars when we see this sign; however, the same sign can also be used for Australian and Singaporean dollars (among others!).

    The way we interpret the sign is an example of structuralism.


    Functionalism shortly followed structuralism. Functionalists believe that the value of knowledge is dependent on its usefulness, meaning that, unlike structuralists, they are free to disregard ideas that don't apply to them.

    Taking a functionalist approach to linguistics primarily involves examining the functions that language plays, such as comprehending and sharing information, expressing emotions, and influencing others. Functionalists view language as a tool and that understanding how humans utilize this tool is the key to understanding how language works.


    The next school of thought to appear was behaviorism. Behaviorist theorists believe that psychology can and should be studied as an empirical and measurable science. Behaviorists wished to base their theories on observations rather than subjective introspection, i.e., the ideas in someone's head.

    One of the key theorists in language and behavior was B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), who saw language as a human behavior that could be observed and even influenced through conditioning. Conditioning involves celebrating good language use and correcting poor language use.

    The Cognitive Revolution

    Behaviourism was the dominant ideology in psychology up until the 1950s when the linguist Noam Chomsky challenged the works of theorists like Skinner, and he instead argued for a more cognitive perspective on language use.

    Cognitive: related to conscious intellectual activity happening within the brain.

    Cognitive theory in linguistics is primarily interested in the role the brain plays in the production and comprehension of language. Chomsky revolutionized the way we think about language by suggesting the human brain has an innate ability to understand universal grammar.

    Universal Grammar: A theory proposed by Noam Chomsky that suggests all human languages follow a similar grammatical structure. For example, most languages have a counting system, a way of expressing tenses, subjects of a sentence, etc.

    The cognitive revolution has been crucial in the development of psycholinguistics as we know it today, underpinning many modern-day theories.

    The school of thought is sometimes referred to as Cognitivism.

    Theories of Psycholinguistics

    As previously mentioned, the application of psycholinguistics can be divided into four main theories: language acquisition, language comprehension, language production, and second language acquisition.

    Each of the previously mentioned schools of thought can be applied to each of these areas.

    Psycholinguistics: Language Acquisition

    There are two main theories presented for childhood language acquisition: Skinner's behaviorist theory and Chomsky's innateness theory.

    Whereas Skinner believed children's minds are like "blank slates" when they are born and all language needed to be learned through conditioning, Chomsky stated children were born with the innate ability to learn languages. He believed that the brain has a particular area dedicated to learning language (the LAD) that is "triggered" once the child hears others speaking. He proposed this theory as a way of explaining how children are able to understand concepts such as the past tense without it being implicitly taught to them. Chomsky's theory on language theory is often referred to as the "Innatist Theory."

    Today, psycholinguists tend to agree more with Chomsky; however, a specific area in the brain dedicated to language has never been found. Additionally, more attention is paid to the role caregivers play in the language acquisition process.

    psycholinguistics, Image of boy reading, StudySmarterFig 3. Psycholinguistics can help us understand how we learn to read.

    Psycholinguistics: Language Comprehension

    Language comprehension is all about how we take meaning from the words we see and hear, and it is closely related to the field of semantics. Just because we can see or hear language does not mean we understand it. A vital area that psycholinguistics covers is reading comprehension. There are currently three main language comprehension learning theories:

    • Traditional bottom-up view

    • Cognitive top-down processing

    • Metacognitive view

    Let's look briefly at each.

    Traditional Bottom-up View

    The traditional bottom-up view of reading comprehension appeared in the 1950s and is based on behaviorism. The principle is that we learn to read through memorization, repetition, and conditioning. The favored teaching methods of the bottom-up view include rote learning and drilling (listening and repeating).

    Rote learning: a teaching technique based on memorization, repetition, and drilling.

    Today, you're unlikely to see many traditional reading bottom-up teaching methods in the classroom, except in the case of phonics. Phonics is how we teach different phonemes and how to blend them, and the method still relies heavily on memorization and drilling.

    Cognitive Top-down Processing

    After the cognitive revolution in the 1960s, there was a shift in the way reading was taught, from rote learning to meaningful learning. Meaningful learning involves activating students' schemas and placing the new information they will learn into context. By doing this, new information can be easily integrated into a student's existing knowledge and is, therefore, more likely to be remembered.

    Schema: a cognitive structure or "building block" of knowledge. When we learn new things we can activate and add to preexisting schemas.

    Metacognitive View

    A metacognitive approach involves applying processing strategies before, during, and after reading. These strategies make the student think about what they're doing and the things they're reading.

    Some strategies include:

    • Before reading - Identify the purpose and form of the text and make predictions.

    • During reading - Locate topic sentences, characters, and specific vocabulary. Ask and answer questions.

    • After reading - Summarize and make inferences from what's been read.

    Psycholinguistics: Language Production

    Language production is primarily focused on the physical production of words and speech sounds and is often associated with phonetics.

    This is the process researchers believe happens when language is produced:

    1. An intended message is chosen in the speaker's brain.

    2. The message is encoded into linguistic form, i.e., the correct vocabulary is chosen based on semantic meaning.

    3. The message is grammatically encoded, i.e., the appropriate verb is chosen, the correct word order formed, and the subject and object are identified.

    4. The message is phonetically encoded, i.e., turned into speech sounds that are physically produced by the speech organs (e.g., lungs, vocal cords, tongue, glottis, teeth, lips, etc.).

    5. The message passes through the air and is received by the listener's auditory system (e.g., ears, eardrum).

    6. The message is decoded by the listener's brain into linguistic form, which is then decoded into meaning.

    Psycholinguistics: Second Language Acquisition

    It is widely accepted that the way we learn a second language differs from how we learn a first. It's suggested that whereas we have an innate ability to learn a first language, learning a second is more like learning another skill, such as playing the piano. However, there is still much debate.

    The age at which an individual begins learning a second language can also make a big difference — this is because of the "critical period stage." From a language acquisition point of view, the critical period is a biological time frame in which the brain can efficiently and quickly learn the complex structures of language. The time frame is typically considered to be between age two till puberty.

    There is reason to believe that learning a second language is easier for children still in this critical period than for adults.

    Example of Psycholinguistics

    To show an example of psycholinguistics in action, it is best to examine a methodology psycholinguists use. One common and influential methodology used to help understand language processing is the tracking of eye movements.

    In 1978, the linguist K, Rayner began studying the way the eyes moved when processing language, such as listening, scanning, looking for images, and reading. He summarized that "eye movement data reflects the cognitive processes occurring in a particular task."1

    Psycholinguistics - Key takeaways

    • Psycholinguistics (aka the psychology of language) is an academic discipline that falls within the field of cognitive science.
    • Psycholinguistics is interested in language processing mechanisms, i.e., how the brain processes, comprehends, and produces language.
    • The study of psycholinguistics can be divided into four main areas: Language acquisition, Language comprehension, Language production, and Second language acquisition.

    • Key schools of thought in psycholinguistics include functionalism, behaviorism, and Cognitivism.

    • The cognitive revolution in the 1960s changed how we think about language learning.


    1. K. Rayner. Eye movements in reading and information processing. Psychological bulletin. (1978).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Psycholinguistics

    What is the main focus of psycholinguistics?

    Psycholinguistics is primarily concerned with language processing mechanisms, i.e., how the brain processes, comprehends, and produces language.

    What are the major branches of psycholinguistics?

    Psycholinguistics can be divided into four main branches:

    • Language acquisition - How children learn their first language
    • Language comprehension - How we process and understand language
    • Language production - How we physically produce speech
    • Second language acquisition - How we learn other languages and how it differs from learning a first

    What are the theories of psycholinguistics?

    There are many theories present within psycholinguistics. Some of the main ones include:

    • Behaviorism
    • Functionalism 
    • Cognitivism 
    • Innatism

    Who is the father of psycholinguistics?

    Wilhelm Wundt is often considered the father of psycholinguistics. 

    What is the difference between psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics?

    Whereas psycholinguistics looks at all the processing mechanisms involved in understanding and using language, neurolinguistics is focused on what happens to language in the brain. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In which century did discussions on the psychology of language begin?

    True or false, learning a second language is the same as learning a first?

    Choose the best definition for behaviorism.


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