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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Language Processing
  • Language Disorders
  • Human Language Acquisition
  • Bilingualism/Second Language Acquisition
  • Methods of Psycholinguistic Research

Psychology Psycholinguistics
Shelia M. Kennison, Rachel H. Messer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0153


Psycholinguistics is the field of study in which researchers investigate the psychological processes involved in the use of language, including language comprehension, language production, and first and second language acquisition. The field is interdisciplinary, with contributions from psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy, anthropology, and neuroscience. Modern psycholinguistic study originated with Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior (1957) (see Chomsky 1959, cited under Language Processing), which detailed how language is acquired from a behaviorist perspective. Chomsky claimed that behaviorist principles were not enough to account for language acquisition or for higher order mental processes in general. The work of Skinner and Chomsky introduced a long-standing debate regarding the degree to which language is acquired through innate faculties, and the role that environmental input plays in language acquisition. Currently, cognitive neuroscience has enabled further understanding of the role of language in human experience through brain imaging and other technological advances. This article will focus on the major areas of psycholinguistics and will showcase both classic and contemporary resources to facilitate further understanding of this complex and fascinating area of cognitive science.

General Overviews

Since its rise in the 1960s, the study of psycholinguistics, despite being a subspecialty within the broader field of cognitive science, has involved a wide range of topics. The history of psycholinguistics as a field of study has been detailed by several authors. Altmann 2001 constitutes a history article detailing early founders of psycholinguistics as well as major findings in the field. The article includes in-depth information about major players in early psycholinguistics as well as sections about language in infancy, spoken and written word recognition, meaning, and future directions in the field. Concerning the interdisciplinary nature of psycholinguistics, debate has been ongoing about how the melding of psychology, linguistics, and other fields has historically been characterized by a “crossing of boundaries” between disciplines (Blumenthal 1987). Abrahamsen 1987 responds to claims set forth in Blumenthal 1987 that psycholinguistics is inherently full of unneeded boundary issues and asserts that psycholinguistics is a role model for other cross-disciplinary fields. Both articles also provide histories of some of the disciplines contributing to psycholinguistics. Cutler 2005 also includes commentary on the interdisciplinary nature of psycholinguistics and more general information about the study of psycholinguistics. For a longer history and more detailed discussion of methodology, Spivey, et al. 2012 is an informative handbook in psycholinguistics that details theory and research methods in psycholinguistics and provides several color diagrams, graphs, and brain scan images. Most of this article focuses on aspects of language processing, and Clifton and Duffy 2001 is a useful review for theoretical backgrounds and classical experiments in language comprehension and production. Two other useful textbooks are Fernández and Cairns 2010 and Harley 2008, which both provide extensive background information on psycholinguistic study and language acquisition.

  • Abrahamsen, Adele. 1987. Bridging boundaries versus breaking boundaries: Psycholinguistics in perspective. In Special issue: Psycholinguistics as a case of cross-disciplinary research. Guest edited by William Bechtel. Synthese 72.3: 355–388.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00413752

    This article gives a brief history of psycholinguistics and responds to Blumenthal’s comments within the same issue regarding difficulties in psycholinguistics’ crossing of disciplines.

  • Altmann, Gerry. 2001. The language machine: Psycholinguistics in review. British Journal of Psychology 92.1: 129–170.

    DOI: 10.1348/000712601162130

    This article serves as a fitting historical piece for anyone interested in the background to psycholinguistics as well as the history behind major contributors to the field in its early days.

  • Blumenthal, Arthur. 1987. The emergence of psycholinguistics. In Special issue: Psycholinguistics as a case of cross-disciplinary research. Guest edited by William Bechtel. Synthese 72.3: 313–323.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00413749

    This article discusses the back-and-forth difficulties experienced by the separate fields of psychology and linguistics as they formed the field of psycholinguistics.

  • Clifton, Charles, Jr., and Susan A. Duffy. 2001. Sentence and text comprehension: Roles of linguistic structure. Annual Review of Psychology 52:167–196.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.167

    This review contains many citations regarding linguistic structure, such as works on the role of prosody, semantics, and memory.

  • Cutler, Anne, ed. 2005. Twenty-first century psycholinguistics: Four cornerstones. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    This book provides information about the interdisciplinary development of psycholinguistics as well as sections on biology associated with psycholinguistic ability and methodology.

  • Fernández, Eva M., and Helen Smith Cairns. 2010. Fundamentals of psycholinguistics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This text provides an overview of psycholinguistics, including first and second language acquisition. It also provides information about the biological bases of language processing.

  • Harley, Trevor A. 2008. The psychology of language: From data to theory. 3d ed. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    This textbook includes information on speech production and comprehension in children and adults. It also provides an entertaining developmental perspective on language acquisition.

  • Spivey, Michael, Ken McRae, and Marc Joanisse. 2012. The Cambridge handbook of psycholinguistics. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139029377

    This handbook is useful for those interested in psycholinguistics during college and graduate school as well as for faculty. It includes information about theory and methods as well as background on the field, on modern methods such as brain scanning, and on future directions in research.

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