The Psychology of Language
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The Psychology of Language

An Integrated Approach

David C. Ludden

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eBook - ePub

The Psychology of Language

An Integrated Approach

David C. Ludden

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Breaking through the boundaries of traditional psycholinguistics texts, The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach, by David Ludden, takes an integrated, cross-cultural approach that weaves the latest developmental and neuroscience research into every chapter. Separate chapters on bilingualism and sign language and integrated coverage of the social aspects of language acquisition and language use provide a breadth of coverage not found in other texts. In addition, rich pedagogy in every chapter and an engaging conversational writing style help students understand the connections between core psycholinguistic material and findings from across the psychological sciences.

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Chapter 1 Animal Communication and Human Language

Kanzi watched one of the keepers play the game with his mother. They did this most afternoons, and she often got cross with him during these sessions. But if he sat quietly on her shoulders, he could watch them. The keeper pointed at some colorful squiggles on a plastic sheet, and then Kanzi’s mother was supposed to do the same. But she wasn’t very good at the game, and she’d just made another mistake. Kanzi squealed and shook his finger, but they both ignored him.
It seemed to Kanzi that the keepers used the plastic sheet to communicate with. Sometimes he even thought he knew what they were trying to say and how his mother was supposed to respond. But she just didn’t get it. The keepers also made noises to communicate with each other, but neither Kanzi nor his mother understood that.
One day during a session, another keeper came into the room. The two keepers squawked at each other, and then they led Kanzi’s mother out of the room, leaving him behind. Kanzi climbed onto the table and started pointing at the squiggles on the plastic sheet. The patterns were easy, and he had no idea why his mother found them so difficult.
When one of the keepers returned, he traced out a pattern with his finger. She looked, and he did it again. The keeper traced a different pattern, and Kanzi gave the response. They did this several more times, and then the keeper scooped little Kanzi into her arms and laughed. Now laughter Kanzi understood—even bonobos do that.
From then on, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues focused their attention on Kanzi instead of his mother (Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin, 1994; Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker, & Taylor, 1998). In retrospect, it was obvious. Human adults have difficulty learning a language, so why should they have expected more from an adult bonobo? Little Kanzi, however, picked up the symbol language quickly and could use it to communicate with his keepers. Later, he even learned to understand their speech, even though he couldn’t speak himself.
Not all scientists agree that Kanzi has learned language. He may use words, they contend, but he doesn’t understand syntax—the rules for combining words into sentences. And syntax, according to the traditional view, is what separates human languages from animal communication systems. Kanzi’s understanding of syntax may be weak, others argue, but his ability to express novel ideas far exceeds anything that animals can do in the wild. Perhaps, then, Kanzi and other linguistically trained apes can tell us something about how our ancestors transitioned from a limited set of animal calls to the infinitely expressive communication system we call human language.

Section 1.1: Animal COmmunication Systems

  • Animals use various communication systems to aid survival and reproductive needs; these usually center around foraging for food, avoiding predators, recognizing friends, and finding a mate.
  • Honeybees perform a waggle dance to communicate with hive mates about the location of resources.
  • Vervet monkeys vocalize to warn group members about three kinds of predators: leopards, eagles, and snakes; alarm calls lead to appropriate evasive action.
  • Many social species use vocalizations to maintain social structure and to establish a dominance hierarchy; in this way, members understand their relationships with other members of the group.
  • Animals use many means to attract mates; these include vocalizations, bright colors, and flashing lights.
  • Animal communication systems:(1) have a limited range of meanings, (2) consist of holophrases that refer to an entire situation, (3) cannot combine elements to create novel ideas, and (4) can only refer to the current situation.
If you want to find a mate, you’ve got to advertise. This is certainly true in our digital age, but it’s equally true in the animal kingdom. It’s five o’clock in the morning, and there’s a cardinal singing outside my bedroom window. Birdsong is the Facebook of the avian world.
That cardinal is simply playing the game of life, the whole point of which is to get your genes into the next generation. But before you can do that, you need to know four things: who you can eat, who wants to eat you, who is part of your group, and who you can mate with. An ethologist, that is, a scientist who studies animal behavior, often refers to these as the four Fs—food, foe, friend, and finding a mate.
Animals communicate with each other about the four Fs through a variety of means. We can define communication as any behavior on the part of one organism intended to influence the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors of another organism. Communication is often vocal, but it can also take the form of facial expressions, body postures, movements, odors—even flashing lights if you’re a firefly. Most of this communication is directed at a conspecific, that is, a member of the same species, but interspecies communication happens as well, and so does interspecies eavesdropping (Lea et al., 2008; Magrath, Pitcher, & Gardner, 2009).


The sun is streaming through my bedroom window, so I get up and dress for my morning run. I dash out the door and down the street. Along the side of the road is a patch of clover, and I see a honeybee flitting from blossom to blossom. She’s a scout, foraging for nectar. But there are too many flowers in this patch for just one bee to harvest, so she lifts up and flies away. She’s heading back to the nest to tell her hive mates what she’s found, and she’ll do this by means of a dance.
Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch (1967) first deciphered the honeybee waggle dance in the mid-twentieth century. Scientists had long been aware of the bee dance, and they had also long suspected that bees somehow communicated about the location of resources, but it was von Frisch who finally put the two together.
When our honeybee returns to her nest, hundreds of hive mates will gather around her, and she’ll perform a figure-eight dance. She’ll start with a waggle-run, followed by a turn to the right to circle back to her starting point. Then she’ll do the waggle-run again, this time circling back on the left. She may do this a hundred times or more as hive mates fly off to gather the nectar she has just told them about.
Through a series of experiments in which he systematically changed the location of a nectar source after a scouting bee had found it, von Frisch learned that the waggle dance gave hive mates two pieces of information: direction and distance. This dance is performed on the vertical surface of the honeycombs, and if the scout waggles straight upward, she is telling the others to fly in the direction of the sun. If she dances to the left or right of the vertical axis, she is telling them the angle from the sun in which they need to fly. She also tells her hive mates how far to fly, as the length of the waggle is correlated with the distance from the hive.
Thus, honeybees can communicate about two things, direction and distance to fly. Yet she can’t tell them what they’ll find when they get there. She could have been scouting for nectar, but bees need water too, and she could have been scouting for that. And if the hive is in the market for a new home, she might be bringing news about some prime real estate. But that much she simply can’t tell, as animal communication systems are always quite limited in their range of expression.
Honeybees aren’t the only animals to communicate about food sources. Some primate species vocalize when they find a new food source, and these food calls will evoke foraging behaviors among other members of their group (Kitzmann & Caine, 2009). In the case of honeybees, the evolutionary advantage of food communication is clear. In a honeybee colony, just the queen bee reproduces, and her daughters can only get their genes into the next generation if the queen survives and mates. But birds and mammals are generally in competition with other members of their group for food (and mates), so the purpose of food calls is less clear. Perhaps they’re helping family members, who share their genes. But some ethologists suspect that food calls are less about communicating a food source than they are vocalizations of unrestrained excitement at finding a tasty treat (Clay, Smith, & Blumstein, 2012).
Figure 1
Figure 1.1 Honeybee Waggle Dance
Source: © Audriusa / Wkimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL.


My morning run takes me across the campus lawn, graced with hundred-year-old oaks and pines. A squirrel scampers about, gathering food. She sees me approach and rears up on her hind legs. And then she chatters, drops the acorn in her paws, and scampers up a tree. Her chattering is what is known as an alarm call. Many social species use such a vocalization to warn other members of the group about approaching predators. But American red squirrels are solitary creatures, and ethologists are still not sure why they make alarm calls (Digweed & Rendall, 2009, 2010). They might be warning relatives in nearby trees, or they may be directing the call at the predator, as if to say, “I see you.”
Better understood is the system of alarm calls used by vervet monkeys in Africa (Seyfarth, Cheney, & Marler, 1980a, 1980b). Vervets are a social species living in groups of up to seventy individuals, and they spend their days foraging for food. Vervets have three enemies: leopards, which want to eat them; eagles, which can carry off their young; and snakes, whose venomous bite can kill them. Avoiding each of these foes requires a different strategy, and vervets have a different call for each predator. When a vervet sees a leopard and makes the “leopard” call, all the other members of the group scamper up the nearest tree. When the “eagle” call is made, they scamper under the nearest bush or overhanging rock. And when the “snake” call is made, they look down and watch carefully where they tread.
Seyfarth, Cheney, and Marler (1980a, 1980b) deciphered this system first by careful observation and then by experimentation. They recorded what they suspected were “leopard,” “eagle,” and “snake” calls, and then they played them back through speakers hidden in trees. Sure enough, the vervets reacted as expected based on the type of call that was played. So it appears that vervets have a “language” consisting of three words. And like human languages, this communicative behavior is partially innate and partially learned. For example, young vervets at first will use the “leopard” call for just about any four-leg...