Psychology and linguistics: what do we need to teach each other?

Author: Anne H Anderson


In this section of the Web Guide the relationship between psychology, and linguistics is considered with respect to learning and teaching. The main questions adressed are: what linguistics does a psychologist need to know and why? What psychology does a linguist need to know and why? A brief historical background to the relationship between linguistics and psychology is provided. An overview is given of how this has fed in to the curriculum of undergraduate courses in psycholinguistics in UK psychology and linguistics departments. Samples of web resources for psycholinguistics are provided.

Table of contents


The main area of overlap between linguistics and psychology is in the domain known as psycholinguistics. The field expanded in the 1960s as a response to the intellectual excitement generated by the work of Chomsky. Then the question of what linguistics a psychologist needed to know was relatively clear. As the goal for psychologists of language was to investigate the psychological reality of grammars, notably transformational grammar, then clearly psychology courses needed to provide students with a sufficient grounding in Chomskian syntax to evaluate the evidence. This fairly direct mapping between linguistics and psychology held sway for a number of years.

Over time psychologists became less enthused by this direct relationship between the concerns of linguistics and psychology. From the later 1970s onward the range of research questions which psycholinguists wished to address widened and depended far less on a direct relationship with linguistics. This made it harder to define the linguistics that a psychologist needed to know.

The leading US psychologist Kintsch (1984) advocated a new approach to the relationship between psychology and linguistics. He asserted that psychologists need to draw on linguistics, but he emphasised that this must be guided by the phenomena of study. For Kintsch, interested in how people understand complete texts, there is little of relevance in theories of sentence syntax but much to be learned from text linguistics. This pragmatic approach to the relationship between psychology and linguistics has implications for the curriculum.

Although the psycholinguistic research agenda has broadened from the 1970s, there are topics which are extensively studied and which therefore feed into the curriculum. Many psycholinguists today would acknowledge the claim made by Garnham (1985) that there are certain biases in psycholinguistic research. There is more emphasis on comprehension than production and on written rather than spoken language. This is often reflected in curricula. So most psychology students in psycholinguistic courses across the UK will acquire enough knowledge of syntax and parsing to appreciate studies of sentence processing. They will be less likely to gain an understanding of phonetics or phonology as they are less likely to be studying spoken language production.

Altmann (1997) describes the relationship between linguistics and psycholinguistics. 'Linguistics provides a vocabulary for talking about the ways in which sentences are constructed from individual words and the ways in which words themselves are constructed from smaller components ... psycholinguistics attempts to determine how these structures ... are analysed to yield meaning ... If linguistics is about language, psycholinguistics is about the brain.' Psychologists then need to learn at least enough linguistics to have this systematic vocabulary and conversely linguists need to have a grasp of cognitive processes and their possible neural underpinnings.

An important point is the way that the two disciplines draw on different intellectual traditions. Reber (1987) reminds us that for linguistics this is the rationalist approach where argumentation is the prime method of evaluating the validity of theoretical approaches. For psychology empiricism is the bedrock, with hypothesis testing by data collection as the main scientific method. These rather different approaches influence the way psycholinguistics is generally taught.

What do UK undergraduates typically learn in psycholinguistics?

The definitions of psycholinguistics and the range of phenomena that are its concerns also clearly impact on issues of curriculum design: what to teach and how to teach it. In UK psychology departments, psycholinguistics usually appears as part of options or courses for final year students although elements may be covered in cognitive psychology courses taken in earlier years. There is usually a focus on students acquiring key skills: evaluating research evidence; becoming aware of laboratory techniques; appreciating how theories develop and their relationship to the empirical evidence.

In the University of Glasgow, psycholinguistics is taught along with cognitive science. Students are introduced to relevant linguistic concepts for topics studied in the courses. This includes word meaning, sentence processing, discourse comprehension, Thus students are introduced to formal semantics, grammatical structure and parsing theories, as well as to concepts such as coherence, schemata and discourse structure. The psychological research agenda of the academic staff drives the selection of linguistics to be taught.

A similar approach to psycholinguistics is taken in psychology in Edinburgh University, with a cognitive approach, and a particular focus on how syntactic structure is assembled during sentence processing. Students acquire linguistic principles of syntax and parsing to enable them to appreciate how scientific arguments develop, and to appreciate the relationship of language processing to general cognitive architecture.

The empirical approach of psychology has a major impact on most psycholinguistic programmes. Many make explicit that the intended learning outcomes for students will be to enable students to use empirical evidence to argue about theoretical claims concerning language processing. As the empirical approach typified by laboratory experimentation is less common in linguistics, linguistic departments may make this scientific approach an explicit part of their teaching of psycholinguistics or in associated modules. Linguistics in Edinburgh includes both an honours module in psycholinguistics and an honours module in statistics and experimental design.

Other Linguistic departments draw on research methods more characteristic of their disciplinary tradition and illustrate how these can be used to explore psycholinguistic topics. Lancaster University draws on its strengths in language corpora to illustrate the role corpora can play in psycholinguistics. Leeds focuses on aspects of psycholinguistics such as language evolution, language pathologies and language acquisition which would be less central in many psychology courses with their greater emphasis on cognitive processes, but reflect research topics and approaches common in other areas of linguistics.

Web resources

Internet resources are also available for psycholinguistics teaching from corpora to on-line experiments where students can gain first hand experience of the research methods used in many kinds of psycholinguistic research. The excellent psychology of language page of links run by Roger Kreutz at the University of Memphis provides a very valuable gateway to a wide variety of on-line resources including most of the major corpora, as well as databases, tests and questionnaires. The psycholinguistic research group at the University of York runs a series of on-line experiments as does the Human Communication Research Centre at Edinburgh University, who run a web portal with access to a range of experiments in different languages hosted by a variety of psycholinguistic research centres.

The use of such resources is likely to be a welcome addition to future courses and potentially could enable students from either disciplinary background to gain a wider exposure to a wealth of educationally valuable resources. The global reach of the internet and hence to accessibility of resources from other countries and languages may help overcome one of the problems of psycholinguistics: its bias towards teaching and research studies of the English language.


Altmann, G. (1997). The Ascent of Babel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Garnham, A. (1985). Psycholinguistics: Central Topics. London: Routledge.

Kintsch, W. (1984). Approaches to the study of language. In T. Bever, J. Carroll & L. Miller (eds.), Talking Minds, 107-145. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reber, A. (1987). The rise and (surprisingly rapid) fall of psycholinguistics. Synthese,72,325-339.

Related links

Psychology of Language Page of Links

Psycholinguistics Research Group Web Pages at the University of York

University of Edinburgh Human Communication Research Centre Portal for Psychological Experiments on Language

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