Language & Cognition (& Pragmatics & Interpretation &…)

Image from University of Melbourne, click me to view original source.

Language – communication and expression – and cognition – thought and thinking – when put together equals what? Psycholinguistics, or to quote Altmann, “…the mental processes that underlie our use of language” (1997, xi). Having studied psychology and psychological counseling, the field of psycholinguistics has always held some fascination for me: “Why do we say/write the things we say/write and how do we say/write them?”; “How do we interpret experience and construct meaning using language?”; “What does it take to be a good linguist or language learner?”; “Where does language come from and how are all languages related and yet also unique?”; etc. It is the answers to these questions (well, primarily the second one) that have nagged at me throughout the past decade as I attempted to make sense of human behavior and more recently, language and communication.

Based upon my introduction to psycholinguistics via Altmann’s The Ascent of Babel, I can see that what is termed psycholinguistics is really just an overlap of numerous disciplines including science, psychology, neruology, physiology, etc. What struck me as more interesting was the consistent reflection of the study of pragmatics in Altmann’s writing. For example, Chapters 7, 8, and 9 in Babel directly address how groups of sounds/words take on a variety of definitions dependent, and sometimes independent, of the receiver’s cultural contexts and linguistic experience/heritage.

So where does this leave me? Wondering how my friend Jen’s attempts to use the same scented oil in her oil burner each time she sits down to work on her novel might be an effective writing aid; wondering how different cultures interpret sensory experience using language similarly or differently; and wondering if a computer can ever really produce and understand language as a human does – as a tool for interpretation.



About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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