Cognitive Linguistics: Definition & Skills

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson discusses the discipline of cognitive linguistics and how it has become one of the primary fields within linguistics and psychology. During the discussion, the term is defined and how cognitive linguistics has been used is also discussed.

The Science of Meaning

Linguistics (the study of how words are formed and how meaning is expressed through language) is a science that has changed greatly over the past several decades. Why the change? Prior to the groundbreaking work done by Noam Chomsky in the late 1950s and prominent linguists in the 1970s, it was a widely held belief that language was not innate but behavioral.

Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, and B. F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, were among a large number of psychologists who studied how language began in humans. They had found no reason to believe that language could be explained by evolutionary theories. They reasoned that higher level language abilities in humans were so distinct that there could be no explanation other than learning. The problem was that they did not have enough information on how the brain works.

Thus, when Chomsky made a strong argument in a paper refuting this belief, he started a cognitive linguistic revolution (cognitive linguistics is the study of how the brain and brain structures influence language). The paper explained that the human brain was exclusively able, among other members of the animal kingdom, to use syntax, meaning to form words into sentences. He was able to show that it could not be just a function of learning after the child was born, but there had to be an inborn ability to extract meaning from words. Since then, scientists in the field of cognitive linguistics have been trying to explain how humans are able to communicate at a higher level than animals.

How People Use Language

It is true that humans and animals share some language characteristics. Animals are able to create different guttural sounds (barks, grunts, quacks, tweets, and others) that convey different meanings to other animals of the same species. The many different types of birds all have different calls depending on what they want to convey. Humans and animals share this characteristic.

But an animal's ability to convey meaning, something called phonetics (how the brain processes different sounds), is limited. The human brain is able to group different sounds into individual words with different meanings and then group these words into sentences that deliver a thought. For the receiver of the sounds, semantics is how people are able to extract meaning from this structured grouping of words.

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