Thought and Language – Advances of Cognitive Psychology



Language is a system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other. Language can be broken down into many smaller units. In fact, it is much like the analysis of molecules into basic elements by chemists. Let us see how Thought and Language are related and develop along our cognitive processes.

Psycho-linguistics vocabulary

  • Phoneme – phoneme is the smallest unit of speech sound that can be used to distinguish one utterance in a given language from another. In English, phonemes are made up of vowel or consonant sounds. For example, we can distinguish among “sit,” “sat,” “fat,” and “fit” Moreover, among the s sound, the f sound, the i sound. These sounds are all phonemes.  English has about 40 phonemes.
  • Morpheme – Morpheme—the smallest unit of meaning within a particular language. The word recharge contains two morphemes, “re-” and “charge”. Each segment conveys meaning.
  • Syntax – Syntax refers to the way/ grammatical rules in which we put words together to form sentences. It plays a major role in our understanding of language. That governs how we organize words into sentences.
  • Semantics – Semantics is the study of meaning in a language. A semanticist would be concerned with how words and sentences express meaning.
  • Pragmatic- Refers to the social language skills that we use in our daily interactions with others. This includes what we say, how we say it, our nonverbal communication. (eye contact, facial expressions, body language etc.)Moreover, it tells how appropriate our interactions are in a given situation.

Properties of Language

Languages can be strikingly different, however, they all have some commonalities. No matter what language you speak, language has following properties.

  1. Communicative: Language permits us to communicate with one or more people who share our language.
  2. Arbitrarily symbolic: Language creates an arbitrary relationship between a symbol and what it represents: an idea, a thing, a process, a relationship, or a description.
  3. Regularly structured: Language has a structure; only particularly patterned arrangements of symbols have meaning, and different arrangements yield different meanings.
  4. Structured at multiple levels: The structure of language can be analysed at more than one level (e.g., in sounds, meaning units, words, and phrases).
  5. Generative, productive: Within the limits of a linguistic structure, language users can produce novel utterances. The possibilities for creating new utterances are virtually limitless.
  6. Dynamic: Languages constantly evolve

Speech Perception

  • The process by which the sounds of language are heard, interpreted and understood.
  • During Speech perception , our auditory system translate sounds perception seems perfectly easy and straightforward… but it is not.
  • Adult produce 15 sounds per seconds means 900 sounds / min.

Characteristics of Speech perception-

  • Phoneme pronunciation varies tremendously.
  • Context allows listener to fill in missing sounds .
  • Listeners can impose boundaries between sounds, even when these sounds are not separated by silence.
  • Visual cues from the speaker’s mouth help us interpret ambiguous sounds.

Variability in Phoneme Pronunciation –


1-tremendous variation in pitch and tone of voice.

2- failure to produce  phonemes in precise fashion.

3-Coarticulation-phoneme you produce varies slightly from time to time ,depending upon surrounding phonemes(Jusczyk & luce,2002).

Despite variations Context, Word boundaries and Visual cues helps us to manage to understand the speaker’s intended phoneme.


      • to figure out a sound or a word (Cleaey & Pisoni,2001).
      • top down feature also influences speech perception

Phoneme restoration –kind of illusion. When a sound is missing from speech listener use context to perceive sound the missing sound

Word boundaries-

      • The actual acoustical stimulus of spoken language shows no clear cut pause to make the boundaries(Davis 2002).
      • An actual physical event such as pause –marks a word boundaries less than 40% of time(Cole Jakimilk,1980)

Visual cue- 

      • Speakers lips and face.

McGurk Effect: People use visual cues to facilitate speech perception

Theories of Speech Perception


 Human are born with specialized device that allow us to decode speed stimuli.

Support-human possession of Phonetic Module (neural mechanism facilitates speech perception, rather than other kinds of auditory perception) does not rely other cognitive processes. In fact, people process speech sound very different from non-speech sound.


Humans use the same neural mechanisms to process both speech sound and non-speech sounds therefore speech perception is learned ability. At present, the evidences supports a general mechanism approach. Phoneme perception can be influenced by other cognitive processes.

  • Brain disabilities

 1. Broca’s Aphasia or Expressive aphasia

      • Left inferior frontal cortex. they have extreme difficulty in forming sentences correctly. 
      • Expressive aphasic patients suffer from more regular rule governed principles in forming sentences, which is closely related to Alzheimer patients. 
      • For instance instead of saying the red ball bounced, both of these patients would say bounced ball the red.

 2. Wernicke’s Aphasia or Receptive aphasia:

      • The left tempoparietal lobe.
      • Patients have difficulties in comprehension tasks. 
      • This is closely related to Parkinson’s disease because both of the diseases have trouble in distinguishing irregular verbs. 
      • For instance using the example of the dog went home, a person suffering from expressive aphasia or Parkinson’s disease would say the dog goed home.

Other Theories of Linguistic Cognition

Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis

The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, is popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or as Whorfianism. It holds that the structure of human language effects the way in which an individual conceptualizes their world.

Working from the position that every language describes and conceptualizes the world in its own unique way, it says that a person’s native language limits their cross-cultural understanding.

Every human language reflects the values of the place and culture where it originated. Moreover, philosophers and linguists have long debated how this effects and shapes the mentality of the persons who speak those different languages.

Jean Piaget’s Theory

Jean Piaget’s theory of language development suggests that children use both assimilation and accommodation to learn language.

Assimilation is the process of changing one’s environment to place information into an already-existing schema (or idea).

Accommodation is the process of changing one’s schema to adapt to the new environment.

Piaget believed children need to first develop mentally before language acquisition can occur. According to him, children first create mental structures within the mind (schemas). Further, from these schemas, language development happens.

Vygotsky’s Theory on Cognitive Development

Also known as Vygotsky’s theory of interchanging roles, supports the idea that social and individual development stems from the processes of dialectical interaction and function unification.

Lev Vygotsky believed that before two years of age, both speech and thought develop in differing ways along with differing functions.

The idea that relationship between thought and speech is ever-changing, supports Vygotsky’s claims. His theory claims that thought and speech have different roots. And at the age of two, a child’s thought and speech collide, Thus, the relationship between thought and speech shifts. Hence, thought then becomes verbal and speech then becomes rational.

Chomsky: Language Acquisition Device

Noam Chomsky’s work discusses the biological basis for language. He claims that children have innate abilities to learn language.

Chomsky terms this innate ability the “language acquisition device.” He believes children instinctively learn language without any formal instruction.

Further, he also believes children have a natural need to use language. In fact, in the absence of formal language children will develop a system of communication to meet their needs. He has observed that all children make the same type of language errors, regardless of the language they are taught.

Moreover, Chomsky also believes in the existence of a “universal grammar,” which posits that there are certain grammatical rules all human languages share. However, his research does not identify areas of the brain or a genetic basis that enables humans’ innate ability for language.

  • ‘To convert underlying ,deep structure into the surface structure of sentence and vice versa.’(Noam chomsky,1957)
    • the surface structure : the words that are actually spoken /written.
    • Underlying /deep structure/ kernel form : abstract meaning of a sentence.


Constituent Structure

  • A constituent = a phrase or basic unit of sentence 
  • Usually containing more than one word but less than a entire sentence.
  • A constituent is a group of words that can be replaced by a single word without a change in function and without doing violation to the rest of the sentence.(Clark & Clark)

Before psycho-linguistics, central concept in understanding language, called phrase structure. 

Phrase structure emphasis that we construct a sentence by using  a hierarchical structure that is based on grammatical building blocks called Constituents(Carroll,2004).

Two broad constituents-

    1. Phrase that focuses on the Noun 
    2. Phrase that focuses on the Verb

Example of Constituent in Language - Careershodh


Strategies to identify the Constituents

  1. Concerns functional words– important words for the structure of a grammatical sentence such as prepositions and conjunctions. (Kimball,1973) For example. Vasudha said that the boy went to store.
  2. Search for content words –  noun & verbs. Example. In the deep dark, long-forgotten(Kimball,1973)
  3. Use of affixes – -er, -y, -ly .(Clark & Clark,1977)

Factors affecting Comprehension

1. Negatives

    • Our cognitive processes handle positive information better than negative information. 
    • Negatives – ‘No’, ‘not’ , implied negatives . 
    • It requires more time to process(Taylor & Taylor, 1990). 
    • More quick response to affirmative sentences than negative  sentences (Clark & Chase,1972). 
    • With 3 negatives ,the sentence is almost non-comprehensive (Sherman,1976).
    • Ex ‘Few people strongly deny that world is not flat.’

2. Passive voice :

    • Active form is basic whereas passive voice requires more information. 
    • Active form is easy to understand (Hornby,1974).

3. Ambiguity

People typically pause longer when they are processing an ambiguous word (Morries & Binder,2011). 

There are 3 kinds-

    • Lexical Ambiguity – different meaning of words.
    • Surface Structure Ambiguitywords can be group together in more than one way .
    • Deep Structure Ambiguityessential logical relations between phrases can be interpreted in two waysFor example, politician found drunk on capitol steps.

Language and Cognition according to age

The following timeline gives an overview of the ages at which children generally acquire language:

  • Stage 1– cooing 4–6 months: Babbling using all sounds.
  • 2– babbling 6–9 months: Babbling becomes more focused—narrowing of sounds.
  • 3– echolalia 9–12 months: First words develop.
  • 4– two word stage 18–24 months: Children begin using two-word phrases (example: “Me up” or “Get milk”).
  • 2–3 years: Children begin using three-word phrases in correct order with inflection.
  • 4–5 years: Children start speaking with nearly complete syntax.
  • 5–7 years: Children begin using and understanding more complex language.
  • 9 years and older: Children understand almost all forms of language.


  • Galloti, K. M. (2004). Cognitive psychology in and out of the laboratory. USA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Matlin, M. (1994). Cognition. Bangalore: Harcourt Brace Pub.
  • Anderson, J. R. (2015). Cognitive psychology and its implications. New York: Worth Publishers


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