Psycholinguistics I/II - 2019-2020

LING 640/641


This course is a year-long foundation course sequence in psycholinguistics, aimed at graduate students from any language science field. The course assumes no specific background in psycholinguistics, including experimentation or statistics. The first semester course also requires only limited background in formal linguistics. But it is assumed that all students should have a serious commitment to some area of language science, and relevant expertise that they can contribute to the class group. Psycholinguistics is a broad field. In principle, it includes all areas of the mentalistic study of language, including the various fields of so-called formal/theoretical linguistics, plus language acquisition and the neuroscience of language. And while we’re at it, why not throw in language disorders and second language acquisition for good measure? Due to this breadth, psycholinguistics can sometimes appear like a scientific archipelago – many interesting but disconnected islands. We will make no attempt to tour all of these islands in this course. Instead, we will focus on trying to understand the overall space, how the pieces fit together, and recurring themes and problems. The course will focus on:

  • The scope and goals of psycholinguistics
  • Tools needed to carry out psycholinguistic research, especially simple experiments
  • Linking experimental findings to conclusions about mechanisms
  • Highlighting connections between different areas of psycholinguistics
  • Identifying the frontiers of current understanding

In the fall semester we will devote a lot of time to ‘model’ problems, such as speech categorization and word recognition, because these relatively simple cases allow us to probe deeply into psycholinguistic issues with limited linguistic overhead. 

In the spring semester we will devote more attention to the relation between the rich syntax and semantics of sentences and language learning and language processing. 

Schedule – Spring

Mondays & Wednesdays, 12:00 – 1:30 1108B Marie Mount Hall.

January 27: Introduction. How the pieces fit together.

January 29: Language learning and grammatical outcomes: do learners converge?

February 3: Case study on island constraints – learning.

February 5:  Case study on island constraints – parsing.

Schedule – Fall

Mondays & Wednesdays, 12:00 – 1:30 1108B Marie Mount Hall. No classes on Oct 17, Oct 22 More details to come …

August 26. Introduction. What a psycholinguist needs. Abstraction.

August 28. Abstraction in speech perception.

September 4

September 9

September 11

September 16

September 18

September 23

September 25

September 30 – NO CLASS, CP in Germany

October 2 – NO CLASS, CP in Germany

October 7

October 9

October 14

October 16

October 21

October 23

October 28

October 30

November 4

November 6

November 11

November 13

November 18

November 20

November 25

November 27 – NO CLASS, Thanksgiving recess

December 2

December 4

December 9


This is graduate school. Your grade should not be your top concern here. You should be aiming to get a top grade, but your focus should be on using the course to develop the skills that will serve you well in your research. There will be no exams for this course. The focus of the course is on reading, discussing, writing and doing throughout the semester, and hence your entire grade will be based upon this. If you want to get the maximum benefit from this class (i.e. learn lots and have a grade to show for it at the end), you will do the following …

1. Come to class prepared, and participate (15% of grade).

Being prepared means having done some reading and thinking before coming to class. Writing down your initial thoughts or questions about the article(s) is likely to help. Although many readings are listed for this course, you are not expected to read them all from beginning to end. An important skill to develop is the ability to efficiently extract ideas and information from writing. Particpating in class discussions is valuable because it makes you an active learner and greatly increases the likelihood that you will understand and retain the material. You should also feel free to contact me outside of class with questions that you have about the material.

2. Think carefully and write clearly in assignments (85% of grade).

The assignments will come in a variety of formats. In lab assignments you will get hands-on experience with various research techniques in psycholinguistics, plus experience in reporting the results of those experiments. In writing assignments you will think and write about issues raised in class and in the assigned readings. The writing assignment may sometimes be due before the material is discussed in class: this will help you to be better prepared for class and to form your own opinions in advance of class discussion. In your writing it is important to write clearly and provide support for claims that you make.

f you are worried about how you are doing in the course, do not hesitate to contact me. Email is generally the most reliable way of reaching me.

Grade scale

 A 80-100%  B- 60-65%
 A- 75-80%  C+ 55-60%
 B+ 70-75%  C 50-55%
 B 65-70%  C- 45-50%

Note that even in the A range there is plenty of room for you to show extra initiative and insight. The threshold for A is deliberately set low, so that you have an opportunity to get additional credit for more creative work.


Written work should be submitted individually, unless the assignment guidelines state otherwise or you have made prior arrangements with the instructor, but you are strongly encouraged to work together on labs and homeworks in addition to group projects. Academic honesty includes giving appropriate credit to collaborators.  Although collaboration is encouraged, collaboration should not be confused with writing up the results of a classmate’s work – this is unacceptable. If you work as a part of a group, you should indicate this at the top of your assignment when you submit it.  


The assignments for the course consist of a mix of shorter and longer written assignments, together with practical lab assignments. The lab assignments are a major component of the course, and are designed to give you first-hand experience with experimental and computational techniques used in psycholinguistic research. You will have around 2 weeks for each lab assignment.

Lab #1A – Classic speech perception paradigms (due September 9th)

Lab #1B – Probing higher level encoding of speech (due September 23rd)

Lab 2 – Lexical Decision (due December 4th)

Assignment #3 – Learning Puzzles (due March 2nd)

Assignment #3

Due Monday March 2nd. Read the following:

Each of these works describes a learning problem in a different domain of grammar. The learning problem that Chomsky describes has achieved a huge amount of attention. The learning problem addressed by Pinker has received moderate attention. The learning problem investigated by Goro has received very little attention.

Do these three problems present the same challenges for learners? If they present different learning challenges, explain how they are different. Give a clear statement of what the learning problem is in each case. If you see similarities and differences between the three learning problems, then it would be helpful to explain those.

To what extent could the three challenges be solved by assuming that the child has substantial innate knowledge? In other words, could the challenges be solved by assuming that the child does not, in fact, have to learn about each of the phenomena, and instead has the relevant knowledge ‘built in’? The typical assumption is that if property X is innate, then it should be both universal across languages, and should not need to be learned.

Or could any of the challenges be solved by assuming that learners have a very powerful distributional learning mechanism, i.e., a mechanism that keeps a detailed count of things that do and don’t occur in the input? In that case, what information in the input would the child need to keep track of in order to successfully learn [be specific], and how plausible do you think it is that such experience is reliably available to the learner? Relevant input could consist of individual strings, collections of strings, sentence-situation pairings, or whatever you think might work. 

For purposes of this assignment you are free to assume as much specific, innate knowledge as you wish, and you can also assume a highly powerful distributional learning mechanism. You could give your learner arbitrarily good memory or computational abilities – no limits. But you can’t change the facts of the target language. You should feel free to comment on the plausibility of your assumptions, but it’s more important to consider how the learning problems could in principle be solved. First find some solution, then worry later about its plausibility.

For this assignment, you should pay attention to detail as much as possible. In particular, be explicit about (i) what the learner’s possible hypotheses could be, and (ii) what evidence – linguistic, situational, or some combination – could help the learner to arrive at the appropriate conclusion. Could the learner figure things out based on individual examples in the input? If so, say what those examples are. Or does the learner need to combine information from multiple examples, i.e., tracking frequencies, or tracking the possibility of different types of sentences? Could the problem be solved by just assuming detailed innate knowledge, or is there a minimum that absolutely must be learned, because it is not universal in all languages?






These are links to the slides used in the course. But note that they include some things that were not discussed in class, and in many cases the slides do not do justice to our extensive discussions in class.



(Note that these are initially OLD versions of slides, which will be updated as the class unfolds.)

Set 1: Introduction

Set 2: Infancy and sound categories

Set 3: Electrophysiology

Set 4: Lexical access in context

Spring Notes

Set 1: Introduction

Set 2: Learning

Set 3: Learning and Parsing

Set 4: Memory and Language



This list will be updated over the course of the year.

Overview: Putting Pieces Together

This series of articles lays out the current thinking of myself and colleagues on the relation between traditional linguistic theories and theories in psycholinguistics.

Lewis, S. & Phillips, C. (2015). Aligning grammatical theories and language processing models. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 44, 27-46.

Momma, S. & Phillips, C. (2018). The relationship between parsing and generation. Annual Review of Linguistics, 4, 233-254.

Phillips, C., Gaston, P., Huang, N., & Muller, H. (2020). Theories all the way down: remarks on “theoretical” and “experimental” linguistics. In press: G. Goodall, ed., Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Syntax.

A Case Study on Syntactic Islands

Island constraints have motivated claims about rich language-specific content in Universal Grammar, in order to capture the finding that humans converge on detailed structural constraints despite limited experience. These articles address challenges to this view from the perspective of learning (maybe learners’ experience is richer than we thought) and from language processing (maybe island effects are simply effects of processing resource limitations).

Pearl, L. & Sprouse, J. (2013). Syntactic islands and learning biases: Combining experimental syntax and computational modeling to investigate the language acquisition problem. Language Acquisition, 20, 23-68.

Sprouse, J., Wagers, M., & Phillips, C. (2012). A test of the relation between working memory capacity and syntactic island effects. Language, 88, 82-123.

Phillips, C. (2013). On the nature of island constraints I: Language processing and reductionist accounts. In J. Sprouse & N. Hornstein, eds., Experimental Syntax and Island Effects, pp. 64-108. Cambridge University Press. [This piece reviews different arguments in the debate over whether island effects can be explained by resource limitations.]

Phillips, C. (2013). On the nature of island constraints II: Language learning and innateness. In J. Sprouse & N. Hornstein, eds., Experimental Syntax and Island Effects, pp. 132-157. Cambridge University Press. [Critical review of the proposal in Pearl & Sprouse 2013.]

Memory Access Mechanisms

Lewis, R., Vasishth, S., & Van Dyke, J. (2006). Computational principles of working memory in sentence comprehension. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 447-454. [Brief overview of parsing as memory access.]

McElree, B., Foraker, S., & Dyer, L.. (2003). Memory structures that subserve sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 48, 67-91. [An argument from timing for parallel access to all parts of a structure in memory.]

Introduction (Fall)

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [chapter 1]

Jackendoff, R. (2002). Foundations of language. Oxford University Press. [chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, chapter 4]

Lewis, S. & Phillips, C. (2015). Aligning grammatical theories and language processing modelsJournal of Psycholinguistic Research, 44, 27-46.

Momma, S. & Phillips, C. (2018). The relationship between parsing and generation. Annual Review of Linguistics, 4, 233-254.

Marr, D. (1982). Vision. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [excerpt]


Speech Perception, Learning Sound Categories

Maye, J., Werker, J. F., & Gerken, L. (2002). Infant sensitivity to distributional information can affect phonetic perception. Cognition, 82, B101-B111. [Widely cited article, suggesting that distributional learning of speech categories is straightforward. We will discuss this at length. It’s probably not so straightforward.]

Stager, C. & Werker, J. (1997). Infants listen for more phonetic detail in speech perception than word learning tasksNature, 388, 381-382. [This is one of the primary readings for the section of the course on phonetic/phonological representations. A very short, but very important study. Why are younger infants better than older infants, even on native-language contrasts?]

Vallabha, G. K., McClelland, J. L., Pons, F., Werker, J. F., & Amano, S. (2007). Unsupervised learning of vowel categories from infant-directed speechProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 13273-13278. [This is an explicit implementation of the idea that is implicit in the papers by Maye et al. 2002 and Werker et al. 2007.]

Werker, J. (1994). Cross-language speech perception: Developmental change does not involve loss. In: Goodman & Nusbaum (eds.), The Development of Speech Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp:93-120. [Useful for Lab 1. This paper reviews in more details the reasons why Werker adopts a structure-adding view of phonetic development.]

Werker, J. (1995). Exploring developmental changes in cross-language speech perception. In L. Gleitman & M. Liberman (eds) Language: An Invitation to Cognitive Science, Vol 1 (2nd edn.), 87-106. [This paper is the best starting point for this section of the course. It presents an overview of Werker’s views on phonetic development up to 1995, including a straightforward study of her important cross-language experiments from the early 1980s.]

Werker, J. F., Pons, F., Dietrich, C., Kajikawa, S., Fais, L., & Amano, S. (2007). Infant-directed speech supports phonetic category learning in English and JapaneseCognition, 103, 147-162. [Analysis of what infants actually hear. It is presented as an argument for unsupervised distributional learning, but I suspect that it shows the opposite.]

Cognitive Neuroscience of Speech Perception

Näätänen et al. 1997. Language-specific phoneme representations revealed by electric and magnetic brain responsesNature, 385, 432-434.

Kazanina, N., Phillips, C., & Idsardi, W. 2006. The influence of meaning on the perception of speech soundsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 11381-11386.

van Turennout, M., Hagoort, P., & Brown, C. 1998. Brain activity during speaking: from syntax to phonology in 40 millisecondsScience, 280, 572-574.

Word Recognition

Altmann, G. 1997. Words and how we (eventually) find them. Chapter 6 of The Ascent of Babel. Oxford University Press. [A good introductory chapter.]

Marslen-Wilson, W. 1975. Sentence perception as an interactive parallel processScience, 189, 226-228.

Marslen-Wilson, W. 1987. Functional parallelism in spoken word recognitionCognition, 25, 71-102.

Simpson, G. 1994. Context and the processing of ambiguous words. In Handbook of Psycholinguistics, pp. 359-374.

Boland, J. and Cutler, A. 1996. Interaction with autonomy: Multiple output models and the inadequacy of the Great DivideCognition, 58-309-320.

Dahan, D., Magnuson, J., & Tanenhaus, M. 2001. Time course of frequency effects in spoken word recognition: Evidence from eye-movementsCognitive Psychology, 42, 317-367.

Chen, L. & Boland, J. 2008. Dominance and context effects on activation of alternative homophone meaningsMemory and Cognition, 36, 1306-1323.

Kutas, M. & Federmeier, K. 2000. Electrophysiology reveals semantic memory use in language comprehension. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 463-470.

Lau, E., Phillips, C., & Poeppel, D. 2008. A cortical network for semantics: (de)constructing the N400. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 920-933.