Psycholinguistics is the field of psychology dedicated to the study of language. The term was originally coined at a 1953 academic conference to create an umbrella term for linguistic psychological studies.

What is Psycholinguistics?

The field of psycholinguistics is concerned with a host of issues related to the psychology of language. Commonly-studied topics in psycholinguistics include:

  • Psychological factors that enable or inhibit the acquisition of language, both in individuals and across species
  • Psychological differences in the use of language, including differences between groups
  • Elements of language such as phonology, morphology, and grammar
  • Speech disorders
  • Factors that affect people’s ability to communicate and understand language. Studies of eye tracking and body language are common and may be used to assess an individual’s understanding and processing of language.
  • The structure and origins of language

Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar–the theory that there is an innate element common to all human languages–is among the best-known psycholoinguistic theories. The theory has been modified, tested, and heavily discussed since Chomsky developed the theory in the 1950s.

How Are Psycholinguists Trained?

Psycholinguists may have degrees in psychology, linguistics, philosophy, or a related field. The field is a multidisciplinary one, incorporating elements of psychology, philosophy, grammar, foreign language studies, sociology, and other disciplines. A psycholinguist’s training may be partially determined by his or her research interests. For example, a psycholinguist interested in how children acquire language may obtain degrees in developmental psychology and linguistics.

Linguistics in Popular Culture

Ape language studies are among the most well-known and controversial studies in psycholinguistics. Beginning in the 1960s, psychologists began teaching apes, particularly chimpanzees, symbolic languages including American sign language and computer-based lexigrams. Several apes have learned a few hundred words, and one ape, Washoe, taught her foster son, Loulis, several sign language words. These studies are controversial, with many psychologists arguing that the use of “language” is little more than conditioning and others insisting that apes provide valuable clues to the ways in which humans use and acquire language.


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Gardner, R. A., & Gardner, B. T. (1989). Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Last Updated: 06-8-2018

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