Projects in Linguistics and Language Studies
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Projects in Linguistics and Language Studies

Alison Wray, Aileen Bloomer

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eBook - ePub

Projects in Linguistics and Language Studies

Alison Wray, Aileen Bloomer

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Projects in Linguistics and Language Studies, Third Edition, is your essential guide when embarking on a research project in linguistics or English language.It is clearly divided into the subject areas that most appeal to you as a student: psycholinguistics; first- and second-language acquisition; structure and meaning; sociolinguistics; language and gender; accents and dialects; and the history of English. New chapters on researching computer-mediated communication (CMC) and on preparing and delivering oral presentations are also included.It offers practical advice on
- identifying a topic
- making background reading more effective
- planning and designing a project
- collecting and analysing data
- writing up and presenting findings.With over 350 project ideas that you can use directly or adapt to suit different contexts and interests, and with chapters on how to reference effectively and how to avoid plagiarism, this third edition of Projects in Linguistics and Language Studies is a reference guide that you will use again and again during your studies.

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Part I Areas of Study and Project Ideas

DOI: 10.4324/9780203768990-2

2 Psycholinguistics

DOI: 10.4324/9780203768990-3
Psycholinguists ask questions such as the following:
  • How does our brain organize the words that it stores?
  • How does it access them so quickly and efficiently?
  • What causes the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when a word just won't come to mind?
  • Why are we more likely to mishear something that is out of context?
  • How do we know how to finish off a sentence that someone else starts?
  • How similar are the processes of listening and reading?
  • When the brain encounters a sentence it has never seen or heard before, does it have to look everything up in some vast dictionary and grammar store, or are there shortcuts that it can take to work out what it means?
  • Does the brain process the words in the order in which it hears or sees them, or does it store up strings of words and then process them all at once?
  • Why don't we take idioms like He's one sandwich short of a picnic literally?
  • How do we know when someone has made a mistake in what they have said?
  • What mechanisms operate during speech production to ensure that all the words come out in the right order and with the right intonation?
  • What can the language of brain-damaged people tell us about how language-processing occurs?
Just imagine trying to teach a computer to speak and understand a language exactly like a human, and it becomes clear why we shouldn't take the answers to questions like these for granted.

Textbooks and major journals

Psycholinguistics is a sub-discipline of both psychology and linguistics, and the slant within textbooks varies accordingly, so you are likely to encounter some rather different viewpoints and approaches. Aim for recent publications when you are trying to get an overview of what the current issues are. Useful introductory texts include Aitchison (2011, 2012), Field (2003), Steinberg and Sciarini (2006), Carroll (2008), Harley (2010) and the more detailed Steinberg, Nagata, and Aline (2001). Also check handbooks (e.g. Gaskell 2009 and Traxler and Gernsbacher 2006, plus Kroll and De Groot 2005 on psycholinguistic approaches to bilingualism, and Guendouzi, Loncke and Williams 2011 for a focus on communication disorders) and various entries in linguistics encyclopaedias (especially Brown 2006). Harley's (2011) six-volume set of state-of-the-art overviews of issues in psycholinguistics is a treasure trove, if your library has a copy. Psychology textbooks that focus on language include Harley (2007) and there are chapters on language in Eysenck and Keane (2010) and Pinel (2011). For project ideas, Field (2005) and Prideaux (1990) are good sources, and Clark and Clark (1977) remains a classic. Aitchison (2003) and Field (2004) provide information on key concepts in psycholinguistics.
Journals in the field of psycholinguistics can be rather daunting, because many of them build on complex theory and methodology. You may not be able to fully replicate anything published in a journal, but you may get some ideas about what questions are interesting and why. Useful journals for projects in psycholinguistics include the following:
Applied Psycholinguistics
Brain and Language
Cognitive Linguistics
Communication Disorders Quarterly
International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders
Journal of Communication Disorders
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Journal of Memory and Language
Journal of Psycholinguistic Research
Journal of Research in Reading
Language and Cognitive Processes
Language and Cognition
Language and Communication
Language and Speech
Memory and Cognition
Mind and Language
Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Reading and Writing
The Mental Lexicon
Written Communication
Written Language and Literacy

Central themes and project ideas

There are two levels at which a project in psycholinguistics can operate:
  • If you have some experience of experimental research and have access to specialist equipment and supervision, you can plan to replicate or adapt a published experiment. Find references to such experiments by reading overviews, and go from there back to the original account, normally in a journal. Only the original paper will give you sufficient detail of the procedures and analyses to plan your own work. Get advice at an early stage from your supervisor, and ensure that you leave plenty of time. General guidance on experimental work can be found in Chapter 13.
  • If you are not experienced, if you have little call on equipment, and/or if your supervisor has insufficient time or specialist knowledge to support you, you are not in a position to conduct research that is compatible with the complex procedures of the published work. However, there are plenty of projects that require less technical skill but which can still be used to shed light on the psychological processes of language. It is mostly projects of this sort that are suggested in the following sections.

How psycholinguists conceptualize language

Following Fodor (1983), most psychologists believe that human cognition is modular. This means that it consists of a number of independent processors. If processors operate independently, then it should be possible to find people who have impairment of one, while the others function normally. As far as language is concerned, interest lies in establishing whether the processes responsible for the production and comprehension of speech and writing are four independent ones or not. For example, clinical psycholinguists want to know whether losing the ability to process spoken input will affect the processing of written input as well: does what we see on the page have to be turned into ‘speech’ before it can be decoded?
  1. Investigate the hypothesis that some types of extraneous sound are more distracting to linguistic processing than others. Give a difficult linguistic task to three groups of participants, one with speech played in the background, one with non-vocal music and one, control, group with no sound. Use the literature to make a prediction about which condition will prove most distracting.
  2. Compare memory for objects with memory for words. Give one group of participants a set of household objects to memorize. Give a second group just a list of the names of the same objects to memorize. Use the literature to decide on your hypothesis, e.g. it is easier to remember the names of objects than it is to remember the objects themselves. Consider how your experiment might help establish whether the process of memorizing an object involves naming it. What sort of processing model is most consistent with your results?
  3. In order to find out if training on one linguistic task is transferable to another task, give one group of participants training in strategies for memorizing random lists of words, give a second group no training, and then ask both groups to memorize long lists of words and recall them. In a second test, give them long lists of numbers to recall. Use the literature to decide on the most robust hypotheses to test, e.g. the trained group will perform better in the words list than the untrained group; the memorization of words and numbers require different skills, so training in one task will not be an advantage in another. Consider the significance of an outcome where the untrained group performed better on: the word test; the number test; both.

How we understand language

Speech comprehension

Research into the comprehension of spoken language has focused on research questions like the following: How do we deduce meaning so efficiently when the quality of the acoustic input is so variable? How do we work out so quickly what a word is – often after only the first two phonemes? One theory that offers an answer is the cohort model (Marslen-Wilson and Tyler 1980): as soon as we hear a word begin, we ‘flag up’ all the words we know which have that sound at the beginning, creating a word-initial cohort. We then disqualify those that no longer fit when the next sound is heard, or which are unlikely because of the context. The cohort model is described in most introductory books on psycholinguistics.
  1. Ask as many friends and relatives as you can to jot down examples of slips of the ear (e.g. Hormone treatment should be available for postmen or pausal women: post-menopausal women), that is, when they mishear something (collect your own examples too). Give them as much time as possible – at least several weeks – and make sure they remember to make a note of things at the time. A taxonomy can be found in Garman (1990: 162–4). Use the examples to assess models of lexical processing. What characteristics do misheard items share with the items they are mistaken for? Are there any examples of mishearings that do not begin with the same sounds? If so, how can the standard models of processing account for them?


Reading is a secondary linguistic skill. Whereas a child develops naturally the facility to speak and to understand speech, reading and writing are learned. They are an extremely recent innovation in mankind's development and still have little or no role in many parts of the world. Therefore, we should expect that the processes of reading and writing are overlaid on the much older processes of understanding and producing speech. However, evidence from some kinds of brain-damaged patients suggests that, when we read, we do not always simply translate the words on the page into a phonological representation and access the meaning that way: rather, there appear to be shortcuts that do not involve the mediation of speech processes.
For comprehensive coverage of the psychology of reading, Rayner et al. (2011) is a good source. For models of reading, see Coltheart (2005), Hillis (2002) and Eysenck and Keane (2010). Questions of particular interest include: Is the recognition of a word aided by the preceding context? Do we identify words by recognizing the component letters or by overall word shape? Models that aim to account for reading processes include the logogen model. Each word has a threshold of activation, which, when reached, triggers its recognition. Activation towards the trigger is caused by seeing the letters of the word, by context, by the general frequency of the word, and by its recent use. The logogen model is described in most introductory textbooks.
  1. Investigate whether reading is mediated by phonological processing. Present on a computer screen sentences that are (a) acceptable (e.g. Chess appeals to clever boys); (b) nonsense (e.g. Trees blossom during knives); and (c) nonsense, but sound identical to acceptable ones (e.g. Wardrobes and dressers differ in sighs). Time your participants pressing one or other of two keys, according to whether the sentence makes sense or not. Hypothesis: sentences in set (c) will take longer to judge as nonsense than those in set (b) because the phonological form will compete with the visual one. Alternative hypothesis: there is no phonological involvement in silent reading, so (b) and (c) will take the same amount of time to decode and respond to. To counter the problem of some se...

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