What is Psycholinguistics?

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Psycholinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and the brain. If you are interested in areas like psychology, the science behind language learning, speech disorders or babies, this could be a field of linguistics for you!

Because we are still learning about how the brain works, psycholinguistics is one of the most exciting and developing fields in linguistics. However, many of the key theories about how the brain produces language are still highly debated among linguists.

Child Language Acquisition

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Because of the key concerns of psycholinguistics is where human language originates from, many psycholinguistics are very interested in studying how children learn language.

If you’ve ever tried to learn another language in school or as an adult, you’ll know how difficult and time consuming it is- thousands of hours of memorisation of grammar and vocabulary, Yet when you were a child, you learnt your native language/s seemingly effortlessly. So what makes children different? And why can humans communicate to each other using language, when animals cannot?

These questions are some of the most divisive in the whole field of linguistics!

Universal Grammar

Duncan Rawlinson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most famous (and most controversial) theory is called Universal Grammar. It was proposed by Noam Chomsky in 1965, who is perhaps the most widely known linguist in the world. Basically, Chomsky argued that children don’t get enough exposure to language to allow them to learn it just through listening to their parents. Therefore, Chomky says, they must have some genetic knowledge of language that comes coded into their brains, known as a language acquisition device. Because children are capable of learning any language (a child with English parents who grows up in Germany will still learn German), this genetic hardwiring must be universal, covering all the variations between different languages. As children grow up, they learn the specifics of their own language. Therefore, Chomsky there are certain properties that all languages have in common (for example, nouns and verbs). However, whether there are really any universal properties across languages is highly debated by linguists- almost every time someone claims to have found a universal property, someone else manages to find an exception!

Other Theories

Although Universal Grammar is one of the most famous linguistics theories, it is highly controversial. As we learn more about the brain, more linguists are coming to share the view that there is no innate language acquisition device. The main problem with Chomsky’s theory, they argue, is that it is incredibly difficult to prove, because currently there is still so much we don’t know about how the brain works.

Many linguists and scientists argue that the part of the brain that children use to learn a language is specifically just for language, but uses the same cognitive processes as we use to learn other skills, such as tying our shoes, or learning maths.

Many argue that children can actually learn a language just by interaction with their parents/caregivers. This learning is driven by repeating what they have heard, then receiving positive and negative reinforcement. If a child who is learning to speak makes a mistake, for example, saying “dog” when pointing at a cat, they are likely to be corrected by their parents. This might happen ten times, but eventually, they will learn to associate the word “cat” with the idea of a cat. Linguists who support this theory also argue that the way that parents speak to young child (think ‘baby talk’!) actually helps them learn the language, because it is slow, repetitive, and uses lots of variation in pitch and volume to keep the child’s attention.


Check out these videos for an overview of some of the main arguments surrounding Child Language Acquisition.

Essay: This personal essay describes one person’s experience of struggling to maintain their first language while growing up in an English speaking country. It shows that knowing language is not like riding a bike, if it isn’t used, it will be quickly forgotten.