Sun, 25 May 2003

Psycholinguistics: The role of the human mind in language

Setiono, Contributor, Jakarta

Psikolinguistik: Pengantar Pemahaman Bahasa Manusia (Psycholinguistics: An Introduction to Understanding Human Language); Dr. Soenjono Dardjowidjojo; Yayasan Obor Indonesia, 2003; 339 pp

Psycholinguistics, a branch of linguistics, is probably a lesser known subject among those interested in language.

Not many linguistic students and teachers are that interested in how the human mind comprehends and produces an infinite number of sentences. This is probably due to the complexities of the subject.

As a hybrid discipline, a mixture of linguistics, psychology and neurology, psycholinguistics attempts to explain how the human mind has the capability to comprehend, produce and acquire pieces of language ad infinitum.

Additionally, it discusses the biological and neurological correlations that allow human beings to communicate and make human language differ from the systems of communication among animals.

Based on his extensive research on language acquisition, coupled with his unquestionable experience, Dr. Soenjono Dardjowidjojo felt obliged to write this book, trying to shed light on the intricacies of the psychological and mental processes that a human goes through in the use and acquisition of a language.

One might wonder why language is a uniquely human behavior, and thus species specific; why all human beings spontaneously and relatively quickly acquire a language without overt instruction during childhood; why the features of human language are nonexistent in any form of animal communication; and why an infant acquires a language quicker than a chimpanzee does.

Such puzzling but important questions are explained by the author.

One of the more interesting chapters in the book discusses how humans perceive sounds that are delivered quickly, and what stages humans undergo in perceiving speech sounds. Most importantly, the chapter on speech perception discusses several models of speech perception that have been presented on the basis of empirical evidence.

Additionally, Dardjowidjojo also expounds on the syntactic and semantic strategies that humans employ in understanding utterances.

Since language has two related layers or structures -- surface structure and deep structure -- a better understanding of these strategies helps us grasp the message conveyed by an interlocutor. More than that, ambiguous sentences can also be detected by the conversant on the basis of these strategies.

Another interesting topic covered in the book is related to speech error, commonly known as the slip of the tongue phenomenon. This has become a topic of interest among psycholinguists as it is thought to be highly relevant in the study of speech production.

In the production of sentences we are, because of psychological constraints, prone to speech errors. These types of speech errors are classified into two broad types.

First, speech error can occur because of incorrect selection in the semantic field, incomplete phonetic information and the blending of certain words.

Second is the incorrect assembling of words, which includes transposition (commonly known as spoonerism), anticipation and preservation.

No less interesting a topic concerns how humans store and retrieve words.

Dardjowidjojo comprehensively covers this topic by presenting the conflicting theories of word storage, the factors that influence storage and the models of word retrieval. Further, he talks about the controversial theory of word meaning and the organization of concept.

What every teacher and student of language needs to understand is the role of neurological foundation in using language, as well as the way human beings acquire language. It is undoubtedly true that the brain plays an important role in controlling the way we use language.

Neurologists have confirmed that the human brain consists of essentially two areas: brain stem and cerebral cortex.

The latter has two further divisions: the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere, both of which are thought to be responsible for the use of language.

It has become evident that damage to certain areas of the brain can impair the ability to comprehend and produce language (aphasia).

The chapter on language acquisition is also worth reading as it presents numerous findings on how humans acquire both their native and foreign languages. These important research findings, including some of the writer's own research, confirm and refute theoretical perspectives from previous studies.

In essence, in the absence of definitive research on psycholinguistics, this book is a must read because it offers invaluable new insights for the direction of future research.

With its systematic exposition and coherent overview of current theoretical as well as practical perspectives on psycholinguistics, this book deserves our attention, and it would be unscholarly not to read every single chapter of this book.