Cognition and Language: Intro to language

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How does the brain work?

Three levels in Psychology:

  1. Descriptive: How decisions are made/observing behaviour/actions.
  2. Algorithm: What is the algorithm that the brain uses? ('Software')
  3. Hardware Implementation: How is the algorithm physically implemented? Associated with brain systems and their link to function.

Lots of work has been done aiming to determine the algorithms. However, research that has been done does not exactly determine a certain algorithm, but helps to exclude some possibilities. 


  1. Descriptive: How do people use language? How is language similar/different? How is language learned? What are the common problems/disorders of language?
  2. Algorithm: Rules that underline language - e.g. how can a computer understand/produce language?
  3. Hardware implementation: Parts of the brain that are involved with language. Neuronal function linked to the production and comprehension of language, writing poetry etc.
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What is language?

Language is a system that can convey meaning (mental representations) from one person to the other. There are a number of different ways language can be conveyed:

  1. Factual information: Most factual information can be conveyed through language. However, this is limited somewhat - e.g. describing to someone how to ride a bike.
  2. Use of symbols: Special arbitary patterns used to carry a specific meaning. Replicated through features such as words (sound and writing); gestures (in sign language); Pictograms (intermediate between specific meaning and arbitrary meaning).

Words can be learned and become separate mental representations - e.g. Bilingual people may have different mental representations between languages. Words can also be combined to form a practically unlimited number of sentences.

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What are the origins of language?

  • Oldest records of language are about 5000 years old. Spoken language existed for much longer.
  • Humans developed anatomical requirements for speaking 150,000 - 200,000 years ago. 
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Animals and language

  • Animals can communicate without the use of language - instead is conveyed through signals, movements etc. 
  • Examples of this include: Honeybee dance, Ants & pheromones.

Teaching animals

  • Sign language: Washoe the Chimp - learned more than 150 signs. Nim Chimpsky - learned 125 signs but unable to form novel combinations or learn syntax.
  • Symbols on a comp keyboard: Kanzi - 150 symbols to spoken words and objects. 70-80% comprehension of sentences. Performance comparable to a 2yr old child.
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  • Historically, Psychology used to rely on introspection - Behaviourism counterracted this, lead by Watson in the 1900's to make Psychology more scientific. 
  • Behaviourism focuses on observing behaviour (e.g. stimulus > response / reinforcement).
  • B.F Skinner - Verbal Behaviour. Language explained using behaviourist response. 
  • Chomsky's Critique - Operant conditioning not sufficient in explaining how children learn language conditioning so quickly? Started the cognitive revolution which focused upon the cognitive systems underlying language.
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