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Languages and Psychology

By: Giulietta (Y13)

I have always been interested in languages and psychology as separate notions; however recent research has introduced me to the world of Psycholinguistics which joins the two. Psycholinguistics is the study of psychological processes that make it possible for humans to understand and use language. Whilst it describes a basic everyday function, which seems trivial and simple on a surface level, the psychological theories and anatomical structures involved in human language processing are very complex and can be applied to computer models as well.

To begin understanding the hidden functions behind our speech, we must begin looking at the formation of languages. There are an estimated 7,117 languages spoken around the world today – often leading to the question: How different can they all really be from one another?

Mark Baker’s book ‘The Atoms of Language’ looks into the possibility that there are ‘universal parameters’ of language. Baker’s comparison of Linguistics to Chemistry likens language parameters to atoms, explaining them as applicable rules that form a basis for languages, just as atoms are the fundamental building blocks of matter. Parametrics by definition are ‘properties that an individual language has, differentiating it from other languages’ – however universal parametrics identify the assumption that there is a universal set of rules that all languages draw upon when formulated.

This theory is still being postulated, as concrete evidence to support the existence of ‘universal parameters’ is yet to be discovered. I recommend reading the book mentioned previously if you wish to know more theories about this.

Moving on from the basic formation of languages, we can turn to the more complex field of psycholinguistics. Psycholinguistics covers a range of topics such as reading, conversational interaction, figurative language, text comprehension, aphasia, child language disorders, gesture, AI language processing, etc. What interests me the most is the way that using different lexicons to express semantically similar and/ or equal expressions can create differences in the way people act. This has links to social and political sectors such as the use of certain lexicons in the media and press can lead to aggressive public behaviours, racism and sexism following enforced stereotypes and other antisocial behaviour in society. I believe little changes in our everyday word choices as well as in the media can subconsciously create a more united and accepting society. I hope to use scientific methods in the future to prove and introduce positive language use into our everyday lives.

The credibility of linguistics and psychology as sciences has been questioned, however a famous example of scientific applications of psycholinguistics is a UCLA Health study on 253 Alzheimer’s patients. They found that bilingual patients had delayed onset of dementia symptoms by four years compared to monolinguals. This was an important study as it suggests language has an effect on how the physical brain forms, as well as affecting the abstract mind. I hope this article can spark others interest in the complex and compelling field of psycholinguistics!

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