Psycholinguistics is an area of interdisciplinary knowledge between linguistics and psychology; Its main object of study is the relationship established between linguistic knowledge and the mental processes that are involved in it.
The birth of psycholinguistics should be placed in a seminar held at Cornell University (New York) in the early 1950s, which brought together linguists and psychologists interested in cognitive processes related to language knowledge . Since then, this discipline has undergone a great evolution, which is closely related to the advances produced both in psychology – which has gradually surpassed strictly behavioral and linguistic approaches – which has broadened its horizons from the dominant Generative Grammar formulations when Psycholinguistics saw the light towards conceptions that take into account factors related to use.
At present, three are the fundamental fields of interest of psycholinguistics: the status and structure of linguistic knowledge, the acquisition of language in children and the learning of second languages in adults. Fields of study of this discipline are also the role of memory in the use of language, the way in which the lexicon is organized and accessed, the way in which meaning is structured and concepts are organized, as well as processes of literacy learning. Likewise, the interests of psycholinguistics are very close to those of the so-called neurolinguistics, a discipline concerned with language pathologies.
In relation to the acquisition of language in children, the main objective of psycholinguistics is to determine the nature and functioning of the mental operations involved in the use of linguistic knowledge; The objective is to construct a psychological model of the way in which language is encoded (produced) and decoded (understood). In this way, psycholinguistics approaches the study of other cognitive processes such as the functioning of memory , perception or reasoning, while integrating into the study of the more general processes of human communication . At present, the main debate is established among the proponents of the theory of modularity,which postulate that the different components of language (phonological, morphological, syntactic, etc.) are processed in isolated and specialized areas of the mind, and other theoretical models that discuss or qualify this modularity.
As for the acquisition of language by children, the question to which psycholinguistics tries to answer is how do speakers of a language get to acquire linguistic and communicative competence. The speed with which this process occurs, as well as the apparent ease with which it is carried out, are the main arguments adduced in favor of the so-called innatist hypothesis , according to which man has an innate disposition to learn a language . The defense of this hypothesis rests on the recognition of linguistic universals , who seem to point towards the existence of an underlying unit to all natural languages. Faced with this hypothesis, some authors defend the theory of social interactionism, which postulates that the language structures that the child possesses are not innate, but are the result of the interactions in which the human being participates from the moment he is born.
Finally, psycholinguistics also studies the processes of acquiring a second language by adults. In this sense, a contrast is established between this learning process and the acquisition of the mother tongue , which is natural, spontaneous and occurs in parallel to a process of cognitive maturation. In summary, the comparison of these two processes has led to the formulation of three different hypotheses:
- The acquisition of the mother tongue and a second language are governed by the same principles;
- The acquisition of the second language is conditioned by the structure of the mother tongue, so that the structure of the latter will have consequences in the learning process: the structures of the second language coinciding with those of the mother tongue are more easily learned ;
- Learning a second language is gradual and is governed by cognitive processes of the individual building systems between the intermediate language and learning ( interlanguages ) increasingly closer to the target language.
The emphasis on one or the other of these theories is at the base of the different approaches that have been used in language teaching.