Focus area Psycholinguistics


In the psycholinguistic modules within the master‘s program Linguistics (LING-CORE-PSY, LING-INTER-PSY), you learn about how humans acquire their native language(s) in early childhood and further languages later on, and how they use their acquired knowledge of language during language production (speaking and writing) and language comprehension (listening and reading). Our main focus in teaching and research is the acquisition of syntax and semantics and the processing of syntax and its interfaces to semantics and phonology. Moreover, we are interested in the relationship between the development of language and cognition and the relationship of language processing to other cognitive mechanisms. In addition to learning about current theories of language acquisition and processing, you will learn how to conduct experiments and analyze their results, enabling you to run your own studies.

The colloquia (LING-COLL-PSY) provide a forum for the discussion of current child acquisition or processing research based on the discussion of recent papers or talks by invited guests. Students have the opportunity to present their own work in progress.

Below you find a short overview of selected topics that are covered in the courses within the psycholinguistic modules.

Adult language processing

Production and comprehension of sentences with non-canonical word order: One and the same meaning can often be expressed using different syntactic structures, with one structure being used freely and often by default (the canonical structure, e.g., simple active sentence like Peter hugged Bill) whereas alternatives structures are used less often and under special circumstances only (non-canonical structures, e.g. passives like Bill was hugged by Peter). How speakers decide which structures to use in a given situation is a central question of research in language production. For language comprehension, canonical structures are often easier to process then non-canonical structures, raising questions concerning the interplay of syntactic structures with cognitive mechanism of computation and working memory.

Production and comprehension of referential expressions: In order to speak about the world around us, languages provide a range of different referential devices, including proper names, definite and indefinite NPs, and pronouns of all sorts. How speakers decide which expression to use for a given referent, and how listeners identify the referent when hearing such an expression is a major research area within psycholinguistics, integrating language-particular information (e.g., some languages have null pronouns whereas other languages do not) with more general cognitive factors (e.g. what elements are in the current focus of attention). Of particular interest are referential ambiguities – when hearing a sentence like Mary told Susan that she would receive a prize., how does a listener figure out who will receive a price?

First and second language acquisition

Acquisition of meaning: In contrast to the acquisition of syntax, which has been investigated in many different languages and across different acquisition types, semantics has only recently received more attention in language acquisition research (van Geenhoven, 2006; Syrett & Arunachalam, 2018). A central question concerns the nature of the skills children need to successfully map linguistic expressions (words, sentences) to their meaning. Regarding word meaning the acquisition of verbs and adjectives and specific meaning components such as telicity and gradability are of particular interest. Regarding the sentence level, exhaustivity in wh-questions, subordinated sentences, universal quantification, and negation are cases in point.

Relationship between language and cognition: Language is a special cognitive ability which includes the processing of information to relate linguistic form and meaning. Acquiring this ability is a complex task for the language learner. Different theories have been postulated explaining how children master this task in a relatively short period of time and without explicit instruction. One of the open issues concerns the question of how language is related to other cognitive systems. In how far are cognitive abilities prerequisites for specific linguistic abilities and vice versa? To approach this question, the acquisition of specific linguistic phenomena and closely related cognitive abilities is investigated, e.g., complement clauses and Theory of Mind, relative clauses and working memory, adjectives and comparison. In addition, the comparison of executive functions in bilingual and monolingual speakers can be revealing.

Exemplary course announcements

Processing Word order

Language processing of word order has been subject to comprehensive cross-linguistic research.
In this class, we review psycholinguistic (and neurolinguistic) investigations within this domain both from the perspective of language production and comprehension.

In addition to experimental insights into language-specific characteristics of word order phenomena in several typologically diverse languages (e.g., scrambling, voice alternations, dative alternations) we will discuss different methodological approaches to word order processing (e.g., structural priming, sentence recall, eye tracking, ERPs).

Preparatory reading:
Jaeger, T. Florian, & Norcliffe, Elisabeth J. (2009). The cross‐linguistic study of sentence production. Language and Linguistics Compass, 3(4), 866-887.

Recent developments in the study of classic language acquisition phenomena

In this seminar, we will address topics in first language acquisition research that have been studied extensively: the acquisition of word meaning, syntactic and semantic bootstrapping, the acquisition of comparatives, and the acquisition of negation. These phenomena address the process of acquiring meaning – in word learning and at the syntax-semantics interface. Although there is a fair amount of research on these phenomena, there are still unanswered questions that have been addressed by more recent studies. For each phenomenon, we will review early and current research and discuss the progress that has been made in acquisition research itself and with regard to the specific phenomena.

Human Parsing

In this class we will discuss recent experimental and theoretical work on human sentence parsing. Questions that will be addressed include: (i) How are syntactic ambiguities resolved? (ii) To what extent does prosody disambiguate syntactically ambiguous sentences? (iii) Does the grammar have properties that serve the purpose of making parsing easier? (iv) What is the relationship between parsing and more general cognitive mechanisms like working memory? (v) What is the source of so-called grammatical illusions (e.g., number attraction, negative polarity illusion). The exact subset of topics that we will discuss depends on the students‘ interests.

Preparatory reading:
Chapter 4 „Sentence Processing“ of Traxler, M. J. (2011). Introduction to Psycholinguistics: Understanding Language Science. New York: Wiley. (available as ebook in the university library).
Traxler, M. J. (2014). Trends in syntactic parsing: Anticipation, Bayesian estimation, and good-enough parsing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(11), 605-611.

Theories of language acquisition

Why do children acquire their first language(s) around the world in the way they do? Two claims are relatively uncontroversial. First, the acquisition problem is real, i.e. the child has to acquire her target grammar with a reasonable amount of data and within a reasonable amount of time. Second, children do not, initially, speak or understand language the way adults do, and they do no simply linearly add more of the same, as time goes by, but their grammars reorganize, the structures generated by their grammars are restructured and reanalyzed. The issue of how to explain child language acquisition has been subject to spirited debates in linguistics. Researchers working in the generative framework, including Chomsky, Pinker, Roeper, and Crain, assume that Universal Grammar is part of the genetic endowment of language learners. Proponents of the interactionist (i.e. usage-based) approach including Tomasello, Lieven, and Behrens, in contrast, do not presume such innate knowledge in children. The objective of the seminar is to work out the available theoretical positions and to assess them critically based on readings of various studies, focusing on the acquisition of syntax.