Fatchul Mu’in

Spektrum pemikiran


Posted by fatchulfkip on March 19, 2008


The term ‘psycholinguistics’ is a combination of psychology and linguistics. Both are the branches of sciences. Psychology is defined as the systematic study of human experience and behavior or as the science that studies the behavior of men and other animals Knight and Hilgert in Abu Ahmadi, 1992). There are several branches of psychology, among others, social psychology, psychology of communication, developmental psychology, educational psychology, and psychology of language. The last branches of psychology is often called as psycholinguistics.

What is psycholinguistics?

a.   psycholinguistics is a field of study that combines psychology and linguistics. It covers language development. (Lim Kiat Boey).

b.  psycholinguistics is the study of human language –language comprehension, language production, and language acquisition  (E.M. Hatch)

Another term is psychology of language.

Based on the definitions of psycholinguistics above, our discussion will be focused on language acquisition, language development, language comprehension and production

Language Acquisition

Relationship between psychology and linguistics can be seen from behaviorist psychology  in which a language activity is considered as a part of human behavior; and from cognitive psychology in which acquiring/learning and using a language are considered as cognitive processes.

All scientific studies must be based on philosophical reasoning. Let us try to trace back a philosophical reasoning of psycholinguistics.  For a new-child a language (first language) is acquired ; after acquiring his mother tongue or first language, he may learn a second language. Some experts differ language acquisition and    language learning.

In this relation, let us try to discuss two branches of philosophy: nativism (Schopenhauer) or rationalism (Descartes) and empiricism (John Locke). The former is used by nativist / rationalist and the latter is used by empiricist. The nativist claims that individual development is much influenced or determined by innate factors; the rationalist claims that all knowledge derive from the human mind; he believes that the mind is the only source of knowledge. Thus, ability to speak a language is genetically transmitted. For rationalists, Descartes, for instance, the mind is more active in gaining knowledge; human’s perception of the external world rests upon a number of ideas. These ideas are innate  and not derived from experience and are sometimes said to be inherent in human’s mind. In human mind, there is ‘a little black box’ which is then called ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD). LAD refers to inborn or innate ability. Noam Chomsky is one of the supporters of rationalism in studying a language, in which he develops what is TG Grammar, among other things, he differs competence and performance (langue and parole in Ferdinand de Saussure’s term). Also, he differs two kinds of language structures:  deep and surface structures.

 Whereas, the empiricist believes that all knowledge derive from experiences or socio-cultural environment.  John Lock believes that a new-born child is like tabula rasa; it is something like a piece of white paper on which we can make a drawing or picture or something in a written form. He learns everything from his environment. He learns a certain language from his parents, family and environment. This philosophical thought influences much on behaviorists’ thought

               The empiricist admit the existence of LAD in human’s mind, but it is then considered as ‘a potential seed’ which has to be developed and nurtured in an appropriate place: a social community. A child can acquire language he has adequate physical and cognitive endowment and because he grows up in a speech community. A child from birth is well equipped to perceive human speech but takes several years to learn to correctly produce the speech sounds of his language. As has been stated above, a new born child is equipped with language acquisition device and it is supported by physical apparatus (called as speech organs) enabling him to produce speech sounds (e.g. phones).

               So, the ability to speak a language in human beings is not genetically transmitted, but it is culturally acquired and or learned from their elders or social environment. This means that a child will not automatically speak a language just because he is a human being, but because he has to acquire or learn it from his parents or people around him, though the process is not always consciously carried out. This also explains why there is no universal language spoken by all human beings in the world, since the language spoken by man is culturally determined. This is to say that it depends on the community in which the child is grown up.

In the process of acquiring a language, children (1) do not learn a language by storing all the words and all the sentences in mental dictionary. The list of words is finite, but no dictionary can held all the sentences, which are infinite in number, (2) learn to construct sentences, most of which they have never produced before, (3) learn to understand sentences they have never heard before. They cannot do so by matching the “heard utterance” with some stored sentence, (4) must therefore construct the “rules” that permit them to use language creatively, and (5) are never taught these rules. Their parents are no more aware of the phonological, syntactic, and semantic rules that are the children.

Stages in Language Acquisition

As has been stated above, a new born child does not automatically have ability to speak a language. Linguistic knowledge develops by stages.

1. First sounds

            At the time an infant is born, he can only produce sound through crying. When he is hungry or thirsty, he cries. When he is sick, he cries. When he wants her to accompany him, he cries. After several weeks (8 weeks), beside crying, he can coo; he can produce squealing-gurgling sounds. The kind of sound is vowel-like in character and pitch-modulated. The vowel-like cooing sounds begin to be interspersed with more consonantal sounds. In this stage, cooing changes into babbling.

2. Babbling

            At the age of six months,  children in all cultures begin to babble. Babbling refers to the child’s effort to produce sounds by using his speech organs. According to Fromkin and Rodman (248), the sounds produced in this period seem to include the sounds of human languages. Most linguists believe that in this babbling pe­riod infants produce a large variety of sounds, many of which do not occur in the language of the household. Deaf children also babble and it is re­ported that their babbling up to the age of around six months seems very similar to that of normal children. Nondeaf children born of deaf parents who do not speak also babble. Thus, babbling does not depend on the pres­ence of acoustic, auditory input. Hearing children born of non-peaking parents also babble. There are however at least two different schools of thought concerning babbling. One group believes that babbling is a necessary prerequisite for normal language acquisition. Others consider babbling to be less crucial.

            When the minimum vocabulary is acquired, children have difficulties in pronouncing all the words; they represent words in terms of phonemes. The child’s ability to generate patterns and construct rules is also shown in phonological development. In early language, children may not distinguish between voiced and voiceless consonants, for example. When they first begin to construct one set –that is, when they learn that /p/ and /b/ are distinct phonemes- they also begin to distinguish between /t/ and /d/, /s/ and /z/, etc.

It is far from being called as a real language. In some important respects, it resembles adult language. The sounds he produces are in long sequences of vowels and consonants such [pa pa pa], [ma ma ma], or [wa wa wa]. For one thing, babbled sequences are not linked to immediate biological needs like food or physical comfort; and those are frequently uttered in isolation for pleasure.

            Babbling has at least two functions. Firstly, it serves primarily as practice for later speech. In this relation, a new born child has been equipped with the language acquisition device and speech organs. These enable him to speak a language that is, of course, preceded by producing speech sounds. The sounds produced in this period seem to include a large variety of sounds, many of which do not occur in the language of the household.

3. Holophrastic Stage

In this stage of language acquisition, a child begins to understand a word as a link between sound and meaning. The words they acquire are the words that are most common in his everyday environment. The words show tremendous variability in pronunciation. Some may be perfect adult productions; others may be so distorted that they only to child’s closest companions. Still others vary in their pronunciation from one occasion to the next. Because of his instability, psychologists have come to believe that children do not show an understanding of phonemes in their first words. Let us consider the one-year-old child who pronounces bottle as [ba] and daddy as [da].

            A child begins to use the same string of sounds repeatedly to “mean” the same thing. At this point he has learned that sounds are related to meanings and he is producing his first words. Most children seem to go through the “one = one sentence” stage. These one-word sentences are called holophrastic sentences.

4. Two-Word Stage

In this stage, around the time of a child’s second birthday, he begins to produce two-word utterances. At first these appear to be strings of two of the child’s earlier holophrastic utterances (one-word sentences). At 18 months or so, many children start to produce  two-and three-word utterances. These kinds of utterances are used for some purposes such as requesting, warning, answering to question, informing refusing, etc . For isntance, an utterance ‘want cookie’ (= I want a cookie) is meant to request; and ‘red car’ is meant to inform that the car is red (Steinberg, 1997 : 7-8)

5. Telegraph Speech

            The utterances of children longer than two mords have a special characteristics. The small function words such as to, the, a, can, is etc. are missing; only the words that carry the main message, namely: the content words are used. The utterances like ‘cat stand up table’, ‘what that?’, and ‘ no sit here’, etc. are lakc of the function words. These are why they are called telegraphic speeches.

The telegraphic speech includes only morphemes and words that carry important semantic content. Gradually a child will begin to include function morphemes (bound morpehemes) in his or her utterances. Children acquire them in a consistent order. The  present progressive verbal suffix –ing  (walking) appears in children’s speech before the third person present marker –s (as in she walks); and this marker –s is acquired well before the past tense marker –ed (as in walked). Around the time –ing appears. The suffix –s referring to the plurality (as in shoes), the possession (as in John’s)and the present tense with the third person subject (as in he walks) are required respectively.

At first, children’s speech does not show plurality. This is to say that no plural marker is used at all. Nouns only appear in their singular forms. Next, irregular plural forms may appear for a while; a child may say  instead of man. Then he discovers the morpheme –s, and applies it to make plurality. In some cases, overgenelization occurs when he says mans. Then, he is able to produce plural forms correctly, except for irregular ones. Plurality is learned gradually.

Language and the Brain

In relation to human ability for language it is necessary to know something about the say the brain controls language. The following discussion shows some of aspects of the way our brains store and use language.

1. Physical Features of the Brain

There are four major parts of the brain. They are –from the top of the spine upwards- medulla oblongata, the pons Varolii, the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex (cerebrum). These parts of the brain form an integrated whole by means of connected tissue in that order. The first three are concerned with essentially physical functions, including breathing, heartbeat, transmission and coordination of movement, involuntary reflexes, digestion, emotional arousal, etc. The cerebral cortex is a layer of grooved, wrinkled and winding tissue.

The cerebral cortex is characterized by a division into halves, called hemispheres, which are connected by tissue called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a connector for the hemispheres and at the same time the principle integrator of the mental processes carried out in the two hemispheres (the right and the left hemispheres).

The connections between the brain and the body are contralateral. This is to say that the right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere, while the left side of the body is controlled by the right hemisphere. The contralateral connection also means that sensory information from the right side of the body is received by the left hemisphere, while sensory information from the left side of the body is received by the right hemisphere.

2. Lateralization

            Lateralization of language is related to the areas of the brain which are involved in the use of language. Language centers predominate in the left hemisophere in right-handed people and sometimes in the right hemisphere for left-handed people. The main language centers in the left hemisphere are Broca’s areas (in the front part of the brain), Wenicke’s area (towards the back), and the angular gyrus (which is even futher back). (Seinberg, 1997 : 180).

            Each side of hemispheres fo the brain performs different cognitive functions. Damage to the left side of the brain resulted in impaired language ability while damage to the right side of the brain did not influence language ability. People with damage to the left hemisphere experience aphasia, an inability to perceive, process or produce language because of physical damage of the brain (Language Files, p. 228).

            Language is lateralized; that the left hemisphere is the location of abilities which are used in producing language while the right hemisphere is essentially devoid of such cognitive abilities.  The split-brain persons, for instance, still could use speech and writing in the disconnected left hemisphere but their right hemisphere had lettle such capacity (Seinberg, 1997 : 181).

3. The Critical Period

            By a critical period or age is meant here an age beyond which language learning will be difficult or even impossible (Seinberg, 1997 : 184). It is also referred to as ‘the period of time from birth to puberty’. A child must learn a language during this period to gain normal, native competence in the language. In this period, the children’s left hemisphere is open to language learning. As the child’s brain matures and the patterns of neural activity become set, the readiness for language learning which was once present becomes less and less available. This will result that it becomes much more difficult to learn a second language after the critical period than it was as a child; that children who learn two or more languages during the critical period usually can speak the languages without an accent; and that if a child is not exposed to language during childhood he/she may become impossible to learn language (Language Files, 229).


Some experts have different views on bilingualism. Let us look at William F. Mackey’s review on the term bilingualism, as follows:

The concept of bilingualism has become broader and broader since the beginning of the century. It was long regarded as the equal mastery of two languages. Bloomfield considered bilingualism as “the native-like control of two languages”. Haugen broadened this to the ability to produce “complete meaningful utterances in the other language”. Moreover, it has been now been suggested that the concept be further extended to include simply “passive-knowledge” of the written language or any “contact with possible models in a second language and the ability to use these in the environment of the native language. This broadening of the concept of bilingualism is due to realization that the point at which a speaker of a second language becomes bilingual is either arbitrary or impossible to determine. It seems obvious, therefore, that if we are to study the phenomenon of bilingualism we are forced to consider it as something relative. We must moreover include the use not only of two languages, but also of any number of languages. We shall therefore consider bilingualism as the alternate use of two or more languages by the same individual (Mackey, in Fishman, ed., 1972: 555).

In the previous chapter, bilingualism and its aspects have been discussed. The discussion on bilingualism is related to the sociocultural aspects. Now, we discuss it in relation to the psychological aspects.

            From the viewpoints of psycholinguistics, the first and foremost question in relation to bilingualism is how two or more languages are acquired or learned. Children acquire two or more languages when they are exposed to these languages early in life. Typically, they are exposed to one language at home and to another outside the home. Under such condition, they eventually become more proficient in the language spoken outside than inside the home (Taylor, 329-330).

Based on the concepts of bilingualism above, we can see that there is a distinction between one given by Bloomfield and the other ones given by another experts. The Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism as “the native-like control of two languages” implies the same fluency and accuracy as those of language use by each of its native speaker. Furthermore, Bloomfield states: “In the extreme case of foreign-language learning the speaker becomes so proficient as to be indistinguishable from the native speaker around him. This happens occasionally in adult shifts of language and frequently in the childhood shift ….. In this cases where this perfect foreign-language learning is not accompanied by loss of the native-language, it results in bilingualism, native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield, 1935:56).

1. Advantage of Bilingualism

             To be a bilingual speaker may be a necessity for a human being. A language is used by its speaker for the sake of communication and interaction. Initially, a newborn child tries to master one language used his immediate social environment such as: family (father and mother) and surrounding people. In the age of pre-elementary school, he may have a mastery of one language; or, he may have a mastery of his mother tongue or native language. In the age level, he can be said as being a monolingual speaker. For him, to be able to use one language is sufficient.

            In the next development, when he wants to go to elementary school, the new social environment ‘force’ him to learn another language until he has a mastery of the language (Indonesian language, for example). When he can be stated as having a mastery of Indonesian language, he is called as bilingual speaker.

To be a bilingual speaker for a young child is beneficial. This is because the brain functions of young child is more plastic that those of older people. Young child, especially in the first six years or so may be considered as in the critical period for language acquisition, especially for phonology and basic syntax (Taylor, 332). Most people consider bilingualism as something good. For one thing, knowledge of another language enables them to communicate with members of other cultures. This provides a means for cooperation and understanding among nations and people (Steinberg, 1997 : 246).

2. Disadvantage of Bilingualism

Some children have an opportunity to acquire a second language at school. The schoolchildren acquire a second language by being taught in a program, that is, by learning most of all school subjectd in a second language; the native language may or may not be taught as a school subject. They acquire a second language mainly by exposure (Taylor, 1997 : 338).

Does learning a second language at an early age, while the child is still in the process of acquiring the native or first language, have a negative effect on a child’s intelligence, thinking ability, creativity or cognitive areas. A research tended to find a negative effect (Steinberg, 247). In this relation, Taylor argues that bilinguals are slower than monolinguals, even when they are strongly dominant in one language, and trilinguals are still slower than bilinguals. The reasons can be : (1) a bilingual uses each language less frequently than a monolingual uses one language, (2) the two languages interfere with each other, (3) a bilingual has the extra cognitive tasks of determining which of two alternative linguistic systems he needs to use and of chosing one of the two, and (4) a bilingual’s vocabulary is large, as it includes words from two languages.

            By knowing and using two languages a bilingual faces a peculiar linguistic cognitive problem. This problem may be in the form of language switching or interference.


            Psycholinguistics, among other things, studies how a language is acquired or learned, and then used. In this case, it covers the topics of language acquisition and language learning,  language and brain, and bilingualism (as a result of learning two or more languages).


  1. What is meant by pycholinguistics?
  2. What is the difference between language acquisition and language learning?
  3. Explain the stages of language acquisition?
  4. What is meant by an exposure?
  5. Explain bilingualism from the viewpoint of psycholinguistics!
  6. What are advantages and disadvantages to be bilinguals in the early age?



  1. emkaha said

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    makasih atas infonya.

  2. fatchulfkip said

    Thanks for your invitation.

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