In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psycholinguistics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conferences and Societies
  • Journals
  • Human Uniqueness of Language
  • Language Universals and Linguistic Typology
  • Current Trends and Future Directions

Anthropology Psycholinguistics
Asifa Majid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0071


Talking and listening appear to be easy and effortless. What could be simpler? However, the apparent simplicity of language is belied by hidden complexity. We speak on average sixteen thousand words a day, which is over nine hundred words an hour or fifteen words a minute. How are speakers able to achieve this linguistic gymnastics? Psycholinguists investigate the psychological processes that make it possible for humans to produce and comprehend language in real time. The emphasis on psychological processes distinguishes the study of psycholinguistics from that of linguistic anthropology (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Linguistic Anthropology). Nevertheless, there are overlapping areas of interest because both subfields are concerned with the psychological, social, and biological underpinnings of language. This is evident in the research on the Human Uniqueness of Language and Language Universals and Linguistic Typology. Briefly, psycholinguists are concerned with how speakers and hearers map from thoughts to utterances. During Language Production, every word that a speaker utters has to be selected from the tens of thousands of words stored in the person’s “mental dictionary.” These words then have to be ordered according to the grammatical rules of the speaker’s language and articulated via his or her mouth or hands. During Language Comprehension, the hearer has to be able to interpret these incoming utterances, decoding a word approximately every four seconds, while at the same time preparing a response to what the speaker is saying. The rate of information exchange is staggering. To understand these processes, multiple stages of formulation, execution, and decoding need to be elucidated. In addition, these processes need to be situated within the neural architecture that produces them and the social tectonics that maintain them. To this end, psycholinguists have developed a range of Methodologies to investigate these processes.

Historical Background

The history of psycholinguistics can be traced to the 18th and 19th centuries. Although strong interest has been shown in the origins of language and language universals—issues at the heart of anthropology, too—mainstream psycholinguistics has not always embraced cross-cultural investigation. This is due to the theoretical assumptions adopted during the Cognitive Revolution. This section covers some of the Early History, the Cognitive Revolution, and the Modularity of Mind. The end of this article discusses Current Trends and Future Directions.

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