Putting the *Psycho* in Psycholinguistics

Please take a moment to imagine me, standing in front of 96 Rwandan students, paused next to a PowerPoint slide as the students scrawled down notes. They are trying to spell “tranformational-generative” correctly, and I am plotting how best to end Noam Chomsky. Shall I go all Harry Potter and send a bewitched opal necklace to his office at MIT? Or perhaps lock him in a room with a never-ending loop of Eugene Levy from Ferris Bueller rattling down the Chomsky-Schützenberger hierarchy? Would that be adequate punishment for blessing the world with linguistic genius and cognitive advancements that put him on par with Albert Einstein in scientific importance, all which I must now shred, boil, puree, and force feed to middle-aged English teachers who really just need to spend more time with their speaking and reading comprehension skills? Before I can decide on how I would send Chomsky to join the choir eternal, a student puts up a hand to ask a question about a term on a slide about fifteen slides back, at the very beginning of the presentation. I sigh, take a deep breath, and attempt to mime diachronic vs. synchronic subfields of psycholinguistics.

Yes, psycholinguistics.

Psycholinguistics, for those who went through years of higher education but never chanced upon this darling of a field, is, simply put, the intersection of psychology and language. More strongly put, it is “the use of language and speech as a window to the nature and structure of the human mind” (Scovel, 2004, p. 4). Got that, right? Essentially, it’s linguistics meets cognitive science. You need a good grasp on grammar and anatomy to understand some of the most basic tenants of the field.

Two weeks ago, I had this same group. 96 students. Nearly all my age or older. All but one are primary or secondary school teachers, mostly teachers of English using a diploma for employment and studying for a B.A. in English and French Education to advance themselves. It’s 7:45pm, and they had already endured another class, Sociolinguistics, from 8:00am-4:00pm (with a lunch break), earlier in the day. They started my class at 5:00pm, and we will end at 9:30pm. Tomorrow, rinse and repeat. That leaves almost no time for homework, if the students are expected to do normal human activities such as sleep (please), shower (PLEASE), eat, or use the toilet.

Clearly, this intensive concept was devised by an economist. I can envision the particular economist who engineered this schedule of death. He sat and counted the hours in a day (24), subtracted the ones for sleeping, showering, eating, and pooping (let’s be generous… 7), and emerged with 17. He chuckled to himself as he looked at a typical academic calendar, with classes spread across 16 weeks. “Can’t they do the math?” perhaps he thought to himself. How silly that students would need hours in between classes! What a waste of time! Why, this way, teachers could complete an entire class in a week or two… reducing the number of lecturers needed.

I rail against this schedule, but I do understand the rational for it: Rwandan universities don’t have enough lecturers, so schedules are packed into intensive course weeks. A teacher does a class or two then goes off to teach at another school. Reality runs institutions, I have learned.

That said, I was actually excited to teach this subject. I have a great appreciation, even affection, for psycholinguistics. In my own graduate program, the more I learned about human patterns of language acquisition, or how something as basic as a “slip of the tongue” can provide information about the production processes in our brains that convert thought to motor speech, the more fascinated I was. The brain, in the words of Emily Dickinson, whose poem begins the overview reader I am using for the course, “is wider than the sky.” It’s amazing. Once upon a time I wanted to continue grad school to study psycholinguistics. And now, I have been assigned to teach it.

photo (20)

Far more useful subject for study

When I was given the class at the last minute, I went into a brief, joyful nerd-trance, basking in a glowing pool of light with Chomsky, wild-haired Steven Pinker, and Helen Keller’s patient goddess of a teacher, Sullivan Macy, all smiling down upon me. Then, the moment broke and reality dawned. I had to teach cognitive science to students who struggled with the language used by Langston Hughes and ee cummings. It’s not that the students are stupid. They aren’t. They are intelligent, and they can do quite amazing things. But, imagine this: you learned some Spanish in high school if you grew up in California. You use Spanish, but most of your daily interactions don’t require much “deeper” language than the vocabulary and grammar needed for newspaper-reading, day-to-day conversation, and perhaps some telenovelas. You have passable Spanish. Now. Read this!

The issue here is a multi-faceted. 1). Students are expected to act like good little sponges and absorb everything I tell them tonight, then add tomorrow’s lecture, and the followings evenings for two weeks of night classes. Their brains are so advanced (evil little economist-schedule-maker supposes) that they do not even need time to absorb or process information: “the brain is wider than the sky!” he triumphantly throws the quote back in my face. 2). Let’s be straight. Do teachers-in-training in an undergraduate degree program being offered in a second (or third) language need psycholinguistics? Maybe a brief introduction to the theories of language acquisition or critical period for L2 learning, perhaps. But 56 hours of instruction? What’s a teacher to do, when her hallowed institutional structure requires she teach a class that native speakers often SparkNote their way through? Well, in this case, after progressing through 1/100,000,000 of the material the curriculum stipulated she cover, she gave up. She stormed her way home, slept well, and made her way back to school in the morning to convince her Head of Department that if these students would be made to suffer through Psycholinguistics, at least schedule the class for January when it could be completed on weekends with ample time in between lectures for reading and attempting to understand the complex material. She/I laid out the case, and he agreed.

Count yourself lucky, Noam. You’ve got a few more weeks.

Scovel, T. (2004). Psycholinguistics. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.


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