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Psycholinguistics Or what I did in my MSc. Natasha Dare. This talk. What is psycholinguistics? The origins of language Some of the major areas of research Famous experiments Terminology State of the art Particularly what is being done at Edinburgh When language goes wrong

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Psycholinguistics or what i did in my msc l.jpg

PsycholinguisticsOr what I did in my MSc

Natasha Dare

This talk l.jpg
This talk

  • What is psycholinguistics?

  • The origins of language

  • Some of the major areas of research

    • Famous experiments

    • Terminology

    • State of the art

      • Particularly what is being done at Edinburgh

    • When language goes wrong

  • Not controversial

What is psycholinguistics l.jpg
What is psycholinguistics?

  • Psychological processing of language

    • Part of cognitive science

    • Input from neuroscience, informatics and linguistics

  • Why is this interesting/important?

    “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

    John Donne, Meditation XVII

Origins of language child language l.jpg
Origins of language - Child language

  • Infants very quickly learn about language

    • 3-day old neonates prefer the sound of their mother’s voice (DeCasper & Fifer, 1980)

    • 4-day old neonates prefer listening to their parents’ language (Mehler & Dupoux, 1994)

    • 1-month old babies can distinguish between speech sounds (Eimas, Miller, & Jusczyk, 1987)

  • 6 weeks: cooing

  • 6-9 months: babbling

  • 12 months: initial word use

  • 18 months: vocabulary explosion of 40 new words per week

  • 24 months: short sentences

  • 36 months: 90% intelligible

Origins of language animal communication l.jpg
Origins of language - Animal communication

  • Many animals have complex communication systems

    • Vervet monkeys: leopard vs snake vs eagle

    • Chaffinches: combined territorial and mating calls – an initial trill to deter males, and a final flourish to attract females

  • But is this true language?

    • Animal communication is holistic

    • Human language is compositional

  • Can see origins of human language in animals

    • e.g. teeth baring ritual = threat -> symbolic acts

    • courtship gift = attention to third entity -> reference

      “It is nothing other than words which has made us human”


How did human language develop l.jpg
How did human language develop?

  • Robotic agents to simulate evolution, especially emergence of regularities

    • 5 vowels most common (Latin)

    • Maximal acoustic distance

    • De Boer (1997) - regularities emerge spontaneously after 3,000 games

  • Pidgins -> creoles

    • Pidgins are formed when communities are deliberately mixed e.g. Ruso-Norsk

    • Creoles develop from pidgins but have full syntax and native speakers

      • Tok Pisin: sapos = if, bilong = possessive

front back








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The problem






Spoken word comprehension

Spoken word production

Written word comprehension

Written word production



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Some linguistics terms

  • Semantics

    • Meaning

  • Syntax

    • Specialised term for grammar – word order

  • Phonetics

    • Sounds of language e.g. thin = [qIn]

  • Phonology

    • Language-specific phonetics e.g. rhotic [r] in party in USA

  • Morphology

    • Words and word formations

      • Sometimes change the underlying meaning (re-)

      • Sometimes don’t (-s)

  • Pragmatics

    • Language use

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Auditory word recognition

  • What are the sound representations used to access the lexicon (mental dictionary)?

  • Very difficult task

    • We understand 20 phonemes per second

    • We can recognise words in context 200 ms after onset (Marslen-Wilson, 1984)

    • Miller and Jusczyk (1989): invariance (phonemes sound different in different contexts) and segmentation (speech slurs words together)

    • Assimilation of sound properties from other words

    • Co-articulation of words

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Auditory word recognition cont.

  • Two cues: uniqueness point and context

    /t/ /tr/ /tre/ /tres/ /tresp/ /trespass/

    uniqueness point

    • Cohort model (Marslen-Wilson, 1989)

      • Bottom-up: Access a cohort of possible words, select one, integrate its properties into current task

    • TRACE model (McClelland & Elman, 1986)

      • Interactive: Context (top-down) and acoustic signal (bottom-up) both cause one candidate to be selected

Visual word recognition l.jpg
Visual word recognition

  • How do we know if a letter string is a lexical item?

    • Two levels of checks: phonetic constraints on impossible non-words (mxbt), phonological/semantic constraints on possible non-words (kstreem/glub)

  • What factors affect the ease of recognition?

    • Frequency: have easier than jade

    • Neighbourhood: mine easier than much

    • Length: bank easier than discriminate

  • Lexical ambiguity

    • Homophones: knight/night

    • Homographs: lead

    • Meanings versus senses: bank versus film

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Visual word recognition cont.

  • Connectionist modelling of orthography (letters) -> phonology (sounds) e.g. split-fovea model (Shillcock, Ellison, & Monaghan, 2001)

    • Neurally inspired

    • Distributed network of layers of nodes

    • Words are represented by patterns of

      activation between associated words and sounds

    • Models are trained with word-pronunciation pairs

    • They learn by reducing the error between the

      actual and desired outcome

  • Dyslexias – developmental (necisary), surface (mint), phonological (kint), deep (sympathy -> orchestra)

/a//o/ /l/ /g/ /d/



o d a l g

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Sentence comprehension

  • How do we parse sentences (build up syntactic representations) given the meanings of words?

  • Phrase structure rules -> tree diagrams of sentences

    • S -> NP VP VP -> V NP NP -> Det N



Det N V NP

Det N

The dog bit the man

  • How do we access this seemingly effortless task?

    • Ambiguity – two or more possible structures

      • “enraged cow injures farmer with axe”

    • Reassessment using garden-path sentences (Frazier, 1987)

      • The horse raced past the barn fell – reduced relative clause

Sentence processing cont l.jpg
Sentence processing cont.

  • Eye-tracking and self-paced reading: longer time spent looking at a word = greater processing difficulty

    • Does semantics help with parsing i.e. are we garden-pathed when there are strong semantic pointers to one interpretation?

    • Ferreira and Clifton (1986): The defendant/evidence examined by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable

      • Although evidence disambiguates examined, eye-movements showed that semantic information did not stop people from being garden-pathed

  • But how much do we actually parse at all?

    • Christianson, Hollingworth, Halliwell & Ferreira (2001): While Bill hunted the deer ran into the woods

      • Participants thought that the deer ran into the woods and that Bill hunted the deer

Discourse l.jpg

  • “One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.

  • "Shall I love you?" said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer.”

  • Oscar Wilde, ‘The Happy Prince’

  • How do we maintain coherence across longer texts?

    • Inferences

      • Logical: Toby is a bachelor – Toby is a man

      • Bridging: integrating new with previously given information. Uses anaphor e.g. John gave Bob the book. He liked it very much – who do it and he refer to?

      • Elaborative: extending what is in the text to world knowledge

    • Tend to only remember gist/important points e.g. passages with personal significance

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Language production

  • 3 parts: conceptualisation, formulation, articulation

    • Pre-verbal message

    • Concept -> linguistic form

    • Articulatory planning

    • Motor execution

  • Although we are very good at this (1/1000 words is an error), errors are very revealing

    • Spoonerisms: exchange of initial consonants

      “The Lord is a shoving leopard to his flock”

      “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”

    • Freudian slips

      “A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother”

Language production cont l.jpg
Language production cont.

  • Tip of the tongue states

    • Temporary inability to retrieve word despite ‘feeling of knowing’

    • Can retrieve partial information e.g. gender, initial phoneme, number of syllables

    • Blockers/pop-ups

  • To formally renounce the throne

    • begins with a, like abduct

  • Suggests that there is a separation between syntax/semantics (lemma) and morphology/

    phonology (lexeme)

    • Levelt (1992)

    • Dell (1986)

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The lexicon

  • How do we know what words mean?

  • Different methods proposed

    • Defining attributes (ISA links)

      animal superordinate

      bird fish

      canary robin salmon subordinate

    • Exemplars/typicality effects

      • Concepts partly based on perception e.g. brown, sticky

      • But not the whole story e.g. the, him




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The lexicon cont.

  • Semantically similar words are interchangeable in sentences

    The child slept on the bed

    The dog walked on the carpet

  • Semantic networks (e.g., Burgess & Lund’s HAL)

    • Meanings come from other words (like a dictionary)

    • Distances between words in network show relatedness, with 140,000 dimensional space










Dialogue l.jpg

  • Two or more people – turn-taking, feedback

    • Difficult to study as fewer paradigms, noisier data, harder to control

    • Commonly use tasks or games to elicit controlled language

  • Audience design: do speakers tailor their utterances to the listeners?

  • Common ground: do listeners use information known only to themselves?

  • Perspective-taking: do speakers and listeners

    take each other into account?

    • Schober and Clark (1989) tangram matching task

      • Matchers 99% accurate, overhearers 78%

Dialogue cont l.jpg
Dialogue cont.

  • Alignment (Pickering & Garrod, 2004)

    • Linguistics representations used by interlocutors become aligned at multiple levels via priming

      • Lexical: use the same referring expressions

      • Syntactic: ‘At what time do you close?’ ‘At 9’

      • Accent and speech rate

    • Alignment permeates throughout levels

    • All happens automatically

  • Prosody, disfluency

    • What information do they give the listener?

      • When Roger leaves the house is dark/it’s dark

      • Kjelgaard and Speer (1999): when syntactic and prosodic cues matched, listeners’ comprehension was facilitated

    • Does it follow that they are produced intentionally by the speaker?

Bilingualism l.jpg

  • Do we have separate language systems for each language?

    • One system – semantic priming

      produces facilitation between languages

    • Two systems – aphasia can affect one

      language only

    • Does age/proficiency explain these contradictions?

      • Problem: no standard, widely-used proficiency test

      • Hard to generalise across results

      • Country/community/family/colleagues all have effects

  • Most likely is one semantic store, two lexicons




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Final facts

  • 6,912 known living languages in the world

  • 896,190 words in English (correct as of yesterday)

  • Mandarin has 1,075,000,000 speakers

  • Most popular word is ‘ok’

    “When ideas fail, words come in very handy”