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The Articulate Mammal

No prior knowledge of psycholinguistics is necessary to understand and enjoy this book, and it provides suggestions for further reading, an extensive reference list, and a detailed index which will satisfy anyone who wants to explore the topic in greater depth.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Carmela Chateau
The Articulate Mammal

The Articulate Mammal

As this book was first published in 1976, with subsequent editions in 1983, 1989, 1998 and finally a fifth edition in 2008, it would appear that many people are interested in learning more about psychololinguistics, and that the subject requires regular updating. Jean Aitchison is an accomplished writer, well able to simplify complex topics without too much dumbing down, and the first chapters make an entertaining and illuminating read. No prior knowledge of the subject is necessary, and most language teachers will be fascinated by the insights provided into the whys and hows of language in the brain.

It is slightly difficult to review the fifth edition of a book: what is new and what is different about this edition? The accompanying website offers hope: there are three audio links, including one to a discussion entitled “What is new in the fifth edition? What are the emerging debates in the field?” Unfortunately, that link doesn’t work. Even more unfortunately, neither do the other two! It is a bit disappointing that the companion website announced on the front cover is not put to better use. Then again, there is no mention of the website inside the book, so perhaps it is awaiting development for the next edition.

With or without a website, the book itself is still a good buy, covering many aspects of the language debate, such as whether nature or nurture is responsible for language (probable answer, both). One interesting section, entitled “Intelligence, sex and heredity”, not only indicates that women have greater verbal fluency, while men are better at spatial tasks, it also suggests that such basic differences could be due to hormonal influences on developing brains.

Chapter 4 examines in great detail the nature/nurture debate, including how, when and why language appears. One section discusses the way babies adapt to language. The experiments on babbling babies (pp 82-83) have provided quite amazing results: mothers can pick out babies babbling in their language, and French babies as young as four days old can distinguish between French and other languages! But there is also “a ‘sensitive period’ – a time early in life when acquiring a language is easiest, and which tails off gradually, though never entirely.” (p 93). These are convincing arguments for introducing exposure to new languages as early as possible.

Chapter 10 discusses how we understand language. “We all know how difficult it is to hear the exact sounds of a foreign word.” (p 207). I found the chapter fascinating, although some of the sentences that psycholinguists study may seem highly improbable to the language teacher, such as “The man the girl the boy met believed laughed” (p 215). I would hate to have to translate that sentence, and I probably wouldn’t accept it if a student produced it. I would also like to know more about differences between languages. Are they all processed the same way? I remember finding German very difficult because of the word order: I couldn’t work out what sentences meant because the verb often comes at the end.

Most of the examples in the book are taken from English, which makes them easier to understand, but begs the question of differences at language level. The example on p 158 concerns gender in French, but the experimental set-up seems flawed. French children do not associate the gender of a word with real-world masculine and feminine, as most of the teaching of gender concerns the regularities and irregularities of the language system. Thus, as French children are taught from a very early age that the ending ‘–ienne’ goes with feminine word gender, the fact that children use the feminine article ‘une’ is perfectly coherent. The word frog is always feminine (la grenouille), but French children know that male frogs exist. This is in fact one of the most interesting differences between French and English: in French, grammar overrides meaning, whereas in English, the opposite often happens. “My family are…” is not an unusual phrase in British English (583,000 hits for “my family are…” and 759,000 for “my family is…” on Google). In French, this would be completely impossible; the only option is “ma famille est…”.

Aitchison is very good at explaining what psycholinguists already know, what is under debate, and what still remains to be explored. It is a challenging field, as one of the goals is to be able to create machines capable of “understanding” or processing language. Chapter 1 starts with a quote from the Roald Dahl story that also provides its title (“The Great Automatic Grammatizator”), and Aitchison underlines from the start that “no one has yet managed to simulate the language ability of a human being” (p 7). This is likely to make language teachers feel more secure: computer programs will not be taking over from us in the near future.

It would have been nice to have an additional chapter on the connections between psycholinguistics and studies in Second Language Acquisition, and also perhaps on the growing body of research that uses corpus data as a basis for Corpus-Based Psycholinguistics. To make room for these topics, I would willingly sacrifice Chapter 8, Celestial unintelligibility (with a rather twee story about the Emperor of Jupiter to explain Chomsky’s changing attitude to language research).

Most of Aitchison’s humour, such as the smiling faces on the brain profiles, works well as a way of making a rather difficult topic easier to understand. At the same time, the book provides suggestions for further reading, an extensive reference list, and a detailed index, which will satisfy anyone who wants to explore the topic in greater depth. All in all, a good book. Shame about the website, though…

Reviewed for TEFL.net by Carmela Chateau
February 2010 | Filed under Linguistics

One Comment on “The Articulate Mammal”

  1. Sputnik Says:

    Thanks for the review – I’ve had this book for ages (it feels like since 1976) and never got round to reading it. However, your review has intrigued me and I will now do it – perhaps the website should link to your review instead. Cheers.

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