Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development

pp 1178-1179


  • Shelia M. KennisonAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Oklahoma State University Email author 


Psychology of language


Psycholinguistics is the scientific discipline that aims to understand all aspects of the use of human language, including how language is acquired, how language is produced, and how language is comprehended.


Psycholinguistics is a branch of cognitive science that focuses specifically on the psychological and neurobiological processes involved in the acquisition, production, and comprehension of human language. The field of cognitive science focuses broadly on the study of the mind and intelligence, embracing multiple disciplines, including computer science, psychology, neurobiology, linguistics, philosophy, and communication [1]. The field has grown in importance over the last decade, as brain imaging techniques have become widely used and as advances in computer science, information sciences, artificial intelligence and robotics have been made.

The term psycholinguistics is a combination of the terms psychology and linguistics. Psychology is the scientific study of mind and behavior [2]. Linguistics is the scientific study of language [3]. Noam Chomsky, a pioneer in the field of psycholinguistics, used the term language competence to refer to the knowledge of language and the term language performance to refer to the use of language. He proposed that those who have acquired a language from birth possess language competence, which includes knowledge of the rules of language, such as word order rules (i.e., syntax), sound rules (i.e., phonology), and rules pertaining to meaning (i.e., semantics). In contrast, the performance of language involves putting one’s knowledge of language into action using the psychological and biological mechanisms [4, 5]. Following these distinctions, psycholinguistics focuses on issues related to language performance, and linguistics focuses on issues related to language competence.

Relevance to Childhood Development

Healthy children acquire the language(s) of their home rapidly, with little direct instruction from parents and/or caregivers. Some researchers, most notably Noam Chomsky [4, 5] and Steven Pinker [6] have argued that the rapid acquisition of language occurs because some aspects of language knowledge are innate. In contrast, other researchers, such as Michael Tomasello [7], have maintained that the acquisition of language utilizes the same biological processes and mechanisms that are involved in acquisition of other cognitive skills. The debate concerning the extent to which language acquisition may be facilitated by innate knowledge is likely to continue. It is important to note that there are an increasing number of studies showing that some language disorders are heritable and have a genetic component [8].

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
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