Psychology of Language, psych 712, Spring 2010

Hi everyone- this promises to be a very unusual semester; this course has a capacity of 20 and we had about 60 students trying to register. The department added another section and I increased the capacity in each to 25. To help out with this overload, I also have an assistant, Erinn Walsh, who will be doing some of the grading and book-keeping. Some of the course details may be changed as we learn how to handle the large number of students.

We are going to try to use Blackboard (BB) as a means of collecting assignments; I haven't done this before so it may take a while to get it right.

If you are not now enrolled or have had my approval, these sections are closed.


Office hours-- I will be available usually immediately after class (T-9:40, Th-12:40) and by appointment.

My office is 311 Conant Hall. The best way to contact me is in person after class or by email. Send to and put 712 in the subject line. THIS IS NECESSARY or your message gets trashed.


Laptop/phone policy? With wireless available in classrooms, some guidelines may need to be established for use in class. More to come on this topic if needed.



Overview and first assignments

This course deals with the use, development and evolution of human  language.  Each year we focus on some topic or topics relating to language.  Some of these will be determined by your interests (see first assignments) and mine. This year I want to continue exploring a very ancient topic-- the relationship between language and certain aspects of thought and meaning, along with exploring our very shaky understanding of human language evolution.


We will also read a number of clinical papers on some aspects of language disability, along with other topics of interest.

Assignments and grading (% values are only approximate here)

Your grade will be based on a number of short assignments including reports to the class, two essay/short answer exams (50%),  class participation, and a final research paper (10-20%). The short assignments are important (maybe 20-30%) so don't ignore them or turn them in late . I will drop the lowest one of about 10 short papers so there is no reason everyone shouldn't get a high average on these assignments -- unless you don't turn them in on time (see below).


attendance and late work


I expect everyone to attend regularly and to turn in written assignments on time. E-mail copies and Blackboard messages are not acceptable except when part of the assignment or in an emergency. In such cases, I expect a printed version as soon as possible. Late papers will lose at least a point off for each class (2 points off 10 each week.) Excessive absences will cost you! If you can't make the class regularly because of work, religion, sleep loss or bla bla bla, take another class.


I have ordered Steve Pinker's old but excellent (1994) book, the Language Instinct  (paperback at the Durham Book exchange on Main street ($cheap).

Depending on how our interests go, we will read a number of research papers.  We may also read some of his new book,


( Pinker, S. (2007). The stuff of thought. New York: Viking Penguin.) I will try to put most of these on Blackboard if they are not directly accessible online. 

Sometimes you will be assigned to find your own readings on a topic!



Read ch.1 in Pinker this week and ch.2 next week.

First written short assignment due Thursday, Jan 28.

a- What are your interests in language? (page 1 sent to BB with "712 interests" in subject heading)

Tell me a little about yourself -- especially in connection with languages -- and give me a one page list of at least 3 topics related to language that you would be interested in exploring.

b- What is psychology? (comment on William James, no writing but think about it.)

      "Psychology is the Science of Mental Life...such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like. ...a certain amount of brain-physiology must be presupposed or included in Psychology...Our psychology must therefore take account not only of the conditions antecedent to mental states, but of their resultant consequences as well...But actions originally prompted by conscious intelligence may grow so automatic by dint of habit as to be apparently unconsciously performed. Standing, walking, buttoning and unbuttoning, piano-playing, talking, even saying one's prayers, may be done when the mind is absorbed in other things. The performances of animal instinct seem semi-automatic, and the reflex acts of self-preservation certainly are so. Yet they resemble intelligent acts in bringing about the same ends at which the animals' consciousness, on other occasions, deliberately aims.[p.6] Shall the study of such machine-like yet purposive acts as these be included in Psychology?

      -- William James definition of psychology, 1890 in his famous Principles of Psychology -- perhaps the first modern psychology text.

      What do you think about James' question underlined above? Should language ("talking") be part of psychology? Why or why not? What is he worried about anyway?


second written assignment- what's new with FOXP2? See online Sparks video. 1 page due Thursday, 2/04.

What is language? What is thinking?   (topics to be considered in class.)

No writing on this yet!

Language evolution timetable

third assignment – 1-2 pages due, Tuesday, 2/09.

Imagine you were a bright chimp or dog or parrot – a creature without a human language.  How would your life be different?  Or suppose you somehow lost the use of your human language.  How would your life change.  This is a question about the functions of language.  Be brief, but try to be very specific.  I expect you to say something more specific than communication would be different or difficult. Say how so and what else?


See "daily notes" for more information on these and subsequent assignments.