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Psycholinguistics is the study of how people understand language. It can cover a number of fields, and provide important insights into our understanding of language.


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Verbal Behavior

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B.F.Skinner's Verbal Behavior represents a conceptual, theoretical extension of his powerful inductive approach innovated with lower organisms. This approach posits that language, or what Skinner calls Verbal Behavior, is best explored in terms of functional relationships.

This view represents a view opposed to the traditional hypothetico-deductive approaches to language that are largely driven by speculative theories and not integrative, data-driven theories.

Skinner's view of Verbal Behavior was widely viewed to have been "demolished" by Noam Chomsky's critique. However, astute readers will have noted that little of what Chomsky said actually applied to Skinner's work. See, for example, Ken Maccorquodale's On Chomsky's Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior ( for a general statement of the widely held perception that Chomsky said almost nothing about Skinner's work.

Skinner's inductively driven conceptual extension to human verbal behavior has seen an enormous resurgence in applied settings in the treatment of autistic children who were considered "untreatable" by normal approaches.

Skinner's position is that human verbal behavior is, like other behavior, driven by the four-term contingency analysis discovered and refined in laboratory work: one or more motivating operations (MO), one or more discriminative stimuli (Sd), one or more responses (R), and one or more reinforcing stimuli (Sr) make up the four term contingency. Human verbal behavior is analyzable in this functional context.

Children, then, learn language as a function of thousands of instances of verbal prompting, shaping and reinforcement.

Grammar is universal in the sense that the world is universal. The same speakers in all of the world deal with the same world and so speak about it in similar ways. Human language is too young to be a part of the human genetic endowment.

Speech and Comprehension Errors

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Although it is hard to cut up brains to discover how they work, there are still clues as to how our brains process language. Speech errors are one of these. There are several speech errors produced even by normal people. Here are several examples:

  • Tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon: It occurs when we can't retrieve an entire word from our brains, but have a vague idea of what its phonological structure, such as its first letter, number of syllables or stress pattern. This phenomenon suggests that words are stored in our brains based on phonological information. Sometimes, we say another, similar word in place of it; this is called malapropism. For example, a baseball player once said 'Texas has a lot of electrical votes' instead of 'Texas has a lot of electoral votes'.
  • Slip of the tongue: It occurs when we know how words are pronounced, but still make errors as we produce the word. A specific type of slip is spoonerism, in which initial sounds of words are switched. It is named after William Spooner, a clergyman at Oxford, who famously made spoonerisms such as 'You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain.'
  • Slip of the ear/Mondegreen: It occurs when we hear an expression but interpret it as a near-homophonic one. An example is Gladly the cross-eyed bear in the hymn Keep Thou My Way. The original sentence was Gladly the cross I bear.

These errors shed light on the difficulties that people with language disorders live by. Some linguists have proposed models of how our brain processes language by studying these speech errors in depth.