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Review of  Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics

Reviewer: Katherine Messenger
Book Title: Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics
Book Author: Eva M. Fernández Helen Smith Cairns
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 22.2499

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AUTHORS: Eva M. Fernández; Helen Smith Cairns
TITLE: Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2010

Katherine Messenger, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at


'Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics' is the latest introductory textbook in the
'Fundamentals of Linguistics' series. It provides an introduction to the
linguistic theory underpinning the study of psycholinguistics, the different
aspects of language processing and a range of empirical methods for
investigating psycholinguistics. The aim of this book is to introduce
non-specialists to the field of psycholinguistics and to furnish the reader with
the background knowledge to carry out psycholinguistic research. In tone and
content it is suitable for students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and
researchers new to the field, who have an interest in the psychology of language
but not necessarily any previous training in linguistics or psychology. Those
who teach courses on psycholinguistics will find it a useful resource as a
course reader and as a source of references and study questions.

The book comprises eight chapters (outlined below), which first provide the
reader with the theoretical background of psycholinguistics, explaining what
language is, where it comes from and how it is stored. Later chapters explore
the psycholinguistic processes of producing and comprehending speech in isolated
sentences and in discourse. Thus the chapters can be broadly grouped into two
halves: the first half of the book largely deals with notions of
psycholinguistic competence whilst the second half largely deals with notions of
psycholinguistic performance. Each chapter begins with a within-chapter contents
list and finishes with suggested study questions and a list of the new concepts
introduced in the chapter. The end materials of the book consist of an appendix,
in which the authors describe experimental designs in psycholinguistics, a
references list, and indexes by author names and subjects.

The first chapter of the book, 'Beginning Concepts,' introduces the reader to
some fundamental concepts and characteristics of language, including: the
difference between language, speech and communication, the idea that language
can be described as having different structural components (syntax, phonology,
morphology), the contrasting notions of competence and performance. It ends with
a brief history of the emergence of psycholinguistics as a sub-discipline of
linguistics and cognitive psychology.

The second chapter, 'The Nature of Linguistic Competence,' provides an in-depth
introduction to the sub-components of linguistic knowledge that underlie
language processing: the different grammatical and lexical units by which
language is organized. Starting with the speech signal, the chapter explains the
phonetic system used to describe speech sounds and moves on to discuss the
phonological component of language. Subsequently, both derivational and
inflectional morphology are explained, followed by an introduction to the
syntactic component of language, which discusses the idea of hierarchical phrase
structure, complex structures and movement. The chapter finishes with a
discussion of the information stored in the lexical component of linguistic
knowledge, the lexicon.

In chapter three, 'The Biological Basis of Language,' the idea of language as an
aspect of human biology is explored. First, the chapter discusses how language
meets the criteria, laid out by Lenneberg (1964), that are required to classify
a system as biological: the species specific nature of language and the fact
that the system is spontaneously and universally acquired through exposure to
the environment. The chapter then describes physiological and anatomical aspects
of language, exploring the methodologies (neurolinguistic science and the study
of aphasia) that have enhanced our understanding of the areas of the brain that
are involved in language processing. Finally the chapter contrasts the
biological system of language with the non-biological linguistic systems of
reading and writing.

Chapter four, 'The Acquisition of Language,' first introduces the idea of an
innate human predisposition to acquire language, discussing the features and
arguments of the nativist approach to language acquisition. It then examines how
input and child-adult interactions form the learning environment for language
acquisition. Much of the chapter is dedicated to outlining the time-course of
both monolingual and bilingual language development from early learning of the
sound system of language through to word learning and syntactic development.
Later acquired language skills, such as complex sentence and discourse
processing are also discussed. Finally, the task of second language learning at
a later stage is contrasted with first language acquisition.

With the notions of linguistic competence established, in terms of what language
is and how it is acquired and stored, the book moves on to examine linguistic
performance, in terms of producing and comprehending language. Chapter five,
'The Speaker: Producing Speech,' examines the various aspects of language
production, from speech planning at the conceptual and lexical level through to
grammatical and phonological encoding of a message through to articulation of
vowels and consonants. A variety of phenomena are discussed, including bilingual
language production and code-switching, lexical retrieval and tip-of-the-tongue
phenomena, syntactic priming, speech errors, acoustic characteristics of sounds
and co-articulation.

The following two chapters are dedicated to language comprehension: Chapter six,
'The Hearer: Speech Perception and Lexical Access,' lays out the pre-syntactic
stages of speech processing, speech perception and lexical access and how they
interact, and chapter seven, 'The Hearer: Structural Processing,' explores
syntactic parsing. Chapter six first explains how speech is perceived by a
listener starting with properties of phonological processing such as categorical
perception and voice onset time. The constructive nature of phonological
processing is also explained and the role of suprasegmental information (e.g.
stress) in speech perception and lexical access is discussed. Chapter six then
examines the process of lexical access in language comprehension, discussing how
words are identified and how this informs our understanding of the way they are
stored. The chapter examines isolated lexical access and also the role of
lexical access in sentence comprehension. The concepts of bottom-up and top-down
information and processing are introduced.

Chapter six highlights the first stages of language comprehension and leads up
to the syntactic stage of language processing, which is the subject of chapter
seven. This chapter explains the process of creating syntactic structures in
language comprehension. The notion of the psychological reality of syntax is
discussed as are the processes and strategies, such as minimal attachment, that
the parser uses to predict and build upcoming structures. These are illustrated
with evidence from how the parser copes with ambiguous sentence processing. The
role of extra-syntactic information, such as lexical and prosodic information
and real-world knowledge, in sentence processing is also explored.

The final chapter, chapter eight, 'Remembering Sentences, Processing Discourse
and Having Conversations,' looks at the wider context of language processing,
contrasting the processing of sentences in isolated contexts with the use of
language in discourse. The chapter first defines the notion of discourse and its
features (e.g. topic, context) and then introduces the concept of working memory
and long-term memory and their contrasting functions in sentence and discourse
processing. The rest of the chapter examines features of discourse processing
(anaphor and reference) and conversation (pragmatic competence, shared
knowledge, turn-taking).

The chapters are followed by a short appendix, in which the authors provide an
overview of psycholinguistic experimental design and methods. This appendix
introduces the reader to the features (e.g. materials, fillers, trials) and
terminology (e.g. variables, counter-balancing) of experiments and explains the
difference between off-line and on-line tasks and measures; a variety of on-line
procedures are described. Lastly, the authors explain the analysis aspect of


In my opinion, 'Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics,' meets its aim of providing
an accessible and relatively thorough introduction to the field of
psycholinguistics theory and research. Each chapter is densely packed: the
authors assume no prior linguistic or psycholinguistic knowledge, yet introduce
and explain a broad range of subjects and research findings in an accessible
manner; readers should note that this book provides a strongly linguistic
approach to psycholinguistics. In tone, style and content level the book is
therefore suitable for students and researchers with an interest in the field
but no background knowledge. The text is clearly written and highly readable,
though it naturally contains increasingly technological terminology as the book
and subject matter progress. In addition, the authors provide study questions at
the end of each chapter which guide the reader to its key ideas and points and
thus support learning and focused reading.

The contents of the book follow a logical and informative progression that first
provides the reader with the background theory of linguistic competence then
puts this theory into practice by explaining how language is processed by
speakers and hearers. In addition to presenting the 'what' and 'how' of various
aspects of language processing, the book also presents a wide variety of
research methods and reviews how experimental evidence informs the theories.

An important feature of the book is that, in addition to providing an
introduction to 'typical' language processing (monolingual, spoken language),
the authors also invite the reader to consider sign language and bilingual
language processing. Whilst the book does not have the scope to cover an
in-depth explanation of sign language, the authors take care to remind the
reader how sign language processing is comparable to spoken language processing,
in contrast to the reading and writing processes. The book does however often
explore bilingual language processing alongside monolingual language processing,
discussing bilingual language acquisition, language production, speech
perception and sentence processing and features of bilingual discourse processing.

Another key feature of the book is the chapter on discourse processing. Much
research in psycholinguistics has examined isolated word and sentence production
or processing, and whilst this work is highly informative about how language is
acquired, stored and processed, the fact remains that natural language rarely
occurs in isolation but is in fact a means for human interaction and
communication. Thus, with the inclusion of this chapter, the book provides a
balanced and more complete view of language processing.

Finally, another contribution of this book is that presents a vast range of
experimental work to illustrate various aspects of psycholinguistics. It covers
developmental and neurolinguistic research methods and findings in addition to a
wide range of production and comprehension studies, as evidenced by an extensive
reference section. The appendix that explains psycholinguistic experimentation
complements this by distilling this work into its key features, aims, and
methods. Thus the reader is not just informed about psycholinguistics, but also
about how to study it.

One potential limitation of the book is that it only provides a nativist
approach to language acquisition and as such, a Universal Grammar approach to
psycholinguistics generally. Other theories of language development and
processing are not considered and as such this is the one way in which the book
does not provide a completely balanced introduction to the current field of

A minor criticism of the book is that a couple of features typical of
introductory textbooks, which in my opinion may have also been useful here, are
omitted: The chapters do not provide suggestions for further reading on a given
topic, which might have been a useful inclusion for the novice reader. The book
does contain a comprehensive reference list and each chapter does introduce a
variety of research papers through which the reader can follow up on a given
topic but, given the introductory nature of the book, some guidance for further
reading could be reasonably expected. Furthermore, in my opinion, a glossary of
terminology would have been a helpful inclusion. Whilst the authors clearly and
concisely explain all new terminology as it is introduced, and new terms used
within the text are highlighted in bold text (with corresponding
bold-highlighted page references in the subject index for the pages where words
are explained), having a glossary that readers can refer to when terminology is
re-encountered would have been a useful feature. I did not find the lists of new
concepts included at the end of each chapter to be as useful.

Nonetheless, I found this to be a thoroughly interesting and informative book
that was well-written and accessible. It provides a wide-ranging, clearly
written and organised introduction to many aspects of the field of
psycholinguistics. It also encourages the reader to consider partaking in
experimental psycholinguistics as much as theoretical study.


Lenneberg, E.H. (1964). A biological perspective of language. In E.H. Lennenberg
(ed.), New Directions in the Study of Language, 65-88. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Katherine Messenger is a post-doctoral research scholar in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include first language acquisition and the application of psycholinguistic methods to language acquisition research. Her research currently focuses on children's comprehension and production of syntactic structures through preferential-looking and syntactic priming studies.

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