CGS 5910: Psychology of Language (Language Processes)

A course on the cognitive science of language

Spring 2020

Course Information

Course Description

Language is a uniquely human ability that is fundamental to cognition, and the study of language has a number of practical applications ranging from artificial intelligence to treatments for language disorders. The goal of this course is to provide an overview of the cognitive processes that allow humans to understand and use spoken (and to a lesser extent, written) language. This includes processes like speech perception and production, comprehension of meaning and grammar, and conversational interaction.

We will focus on current debates within these fields and the evidence that has informed them. Students are expected to know the major theoretical perspectives, controversies, and how the research within an area addresses those theoretical and controversial issues. We will also undertake several in class activites and demonstrations designed to give students first-hand knowledge of the research methods used to study language cognition, particularly focusing on computational models of language processing. Finally, this course will highlight the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in cognitive science. Research from psychology, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, and speech pathology will all make an appearance in this course.


By taking this course, you will gain:

  1. Knowledge of current theories and models of language processing, spanning multiple levels of processing and fields of study
  2. Experience with some of the techniques used in cognitive science to study different aspects of language processing
  3. Practice reading original research articles and discussing them in class

Course Materials

Links to all required readings will be posted on the course website (i.e., this website). See the schedule for a list of readings. In addition, there are two suggested textbooks for the course, both by Harley (the difference is explained below; links to the publisher's website):

Because there are a number of research articles to read for this course, we would not be able to cover all of the additional material in the textbook. Therefore, the books are not required. However, I highly recommend them as they will help reinforce the ideas we discuss in class and in the articles. The first book (Psychology of Language) is a more standard textbook on psycholinguistics, and the chapters listed in the schedule correspond to the ones from that book. The other book (Talking the Talk) is more introductory, but is still very detailed. If you would like a more basic book that covers these topics, I would suggest that one.

If you would like to obtain one of the textbooks but financial considerations are an issue, please talk to me. You can often find previous editions of the books at a much lower price, and I think these would also be fine for this course if you can track one down.

Course Requirements

Point Breakdown

Component Points % of Final Grade
Exam 1 75 15%
Exam 2 75 15%
Final Exam 150 30%
Homework 50 10%
Participation/"Experts"/Response Journals 150 30%


There will be two non-cumulative midterms and a cumulative final exam. Exams will primarily consist of short answer and essay questions. The goal of the exams is to evaluate your ability to understand the basic concepts covered in the course and apply the scientific principles you have learned. As such, the exam questions will focus more on broad concepts, theories, and techniques than on specific facts. Questions will be drawn from the material presented in class, as well as from material presented in research articles and other readings.

For each exam, you may have one sheet of handwritten notes (one side of one piece of paper). You can put anything you'd like on your note sheet, but each student must write their own. I will collect these with the exams and return them with the graded exams. Please use the note sheet as a study tool to help you organize you thoughts. Students often tell me that it ends up being more helpful when studying than during the actual exam!

Exams will not be administered prior to the scheduled date. Do not miss an exam unless it is absolutely necessary. You may request to take a make-up exam if you have an authorized university absence. The University's official Attendance Policy lists the following excused absences: "approved athletic participation or participation in approved academic events; official university business; approved field trips; certified serious illness; death in the immediate family; or approved placement activities". Please speak to me in person if you have an authorized absence that requires you to make-up a scheduled exam.

Homework Assignments

There will be two short homework assignments designed to build your intuitions of how language works, illustrate key concepts, and practice some aspects of research approaches used to study language processing. Please submit a hard copy in class on the due date. Details of homework assignments are included in the schedule and will be discussed in class.

Discussion Experts, Participation, and Response Journals

Throughout the semester, we will be reading research articles on different aspects of language processing. It is important that you do the readings before each class and participate in the class discussion. There will also be several in-class activities that we will do together (see schedule for details). If you must miss class on a day when we have a scheduled class activity, please let me know in advance so that you can make up the work and not lose participation points.

Each student will also be a member of a discussion group that will discuss the research article about the day's topic as a small group before our whole class discussion. Within each group there will be one designated Expert. Experts should come to class prepared to lead a discussion on the findings from the article. Experts do not need to meet before class, nor do they need to consult with each other about the article we are discussing (but you are welcome to do this if you want!). Instead, each Expert should be prepared to lead the discussion of the article, understanding the hypotheses put forth, the approach used, and the results, as well as how the data fit with one or more broader theories of language processing.

Each Expert should contribute to presenting their thoughts and guiding the discussion both in small groups and as a class. Everyone else is encouraged to participate in the discussion as well. If you have questions about the articles, please let me know before class so we can meet and clear up anything you're not sure about (this is particularly important if you are one of our Experts for that topic).

At the end of each class period we will have 5-10 minutes for writing short response journals reflecting on the day's discussion and activities. This is another opportunity for you to demonstrate your engagement and what you have learned about the course material. Response journals will be turned in at the end of class each day.

Grading Scale

Grades will be based on the percentage of points earned on exams, homework assignments, and class discussion/participation. Grades will not be determined on the basis of a curve.

A-...90.00-93.32% A...>93.32%
B-...80.00-83.32% B...83.33-86.66% B+...86.67-89.99%
C-...70.00-73.32% C...73.33-76.66% C+...76.67-79.99%
D-...60.00-63.32% D...63.33-66.66% D+...66.67-69.99%

Course Policies

Standard Villanova Course Policies

Course-specific Policies

Course Schedule

Date Unit Topic Readings Deadlines/Notes Experts
1/13 Overview Cognitive science and the study of language, Conversational interaction assignment Harley, Ch. 1
1/15 Overview Information processing and connectionism Reese (2018)
Harley Appendix
1/20 No class (MLK Day)
1/22 Overview Theoretical debate: Rules vs. statistics Pinker & Ullman (2002);
McClelland & Patterson (2002)
1/27 Speech Perception Phonetics, speech categorization, IPA transcription activity; IPA chart with English examples Harley, Chapter 2 (pp. 30-36)
Harley, Chapter 9 (pp. 259-262)
Holt & Lotto (2010)
1/29 Speech Perception Models of speech perception
spectrograms and formants
Liberman & Whalen (2000);
Holt & Lotto (2008)
Conversational interaction assignment due MD, NS, AH, PO, JC
2/3 Speech Perception Gradiency McMurray, Tannenhaus, & Aslin (2002)
2/5 Word Recognition Properties of the lexicon, word segmentation, gradiency, Lexical neighborhoods activity Harley, Ch. 9 (pp. 265-end)
Vitevitch & Luce (1998)
2/10 Word Recognition Catch-up neighborhoods stuff EA, KA, KB, MM, JC
2/12 Word Recognition Interactivity in word recognition, Neural organization of the lexicon, Class activity (TRACE) Optional download for class activity Getz & Toscano (2019);
Harley, Ch. 9 (pp. 263-265);
Optional: McClelland, Mirman, & Holt (2006);
McQueen, Norris, & Cutler (2006)
2/17 Catch-up/Exam Review Chalkboard images
2/19 EXAM 1
2/24 Word Meaning Theories of word meaning Harley, Ch. 11 (pp. 319-337)
Harley, Ch. 6 (pp. 185-190)
Ramscar & Port (2015)
2/26 Word Meaning Using words in real-time processing Elman (2004);
Apfelbaum, Blumstein & McMurray (2011)
3/2 No class (Spring break) Start next reading early, it's long
3/4 No class (Spring break)
3/9 Overview Language: Product or action? Tanenhaus & Trueswell (2005) EA, KB, MM, AF
3/11 Sentence Processing Syntax, structure first models, constraint-based models, Syntactic analysis activity Harley, Ch. 10
Chambers, Tanenhaus, & Magnuson (2004)
3/16 Sentence Processing Catch-up Chambers reading discussion SS, NS, AN, AA, JC
3/18 Sentence Processing "Good enough" processing, Garden path sentences activity Ferreira, Bailey & Ferraro (2002) EA, GC, AN, CK, AF
3/23 Sentence Processing Interactions: Sentence processing and word recognition Levy (2009);
Altmann (1998)
3/25 Language Production Sentence planning, lexical selection and access Harley, Ch. 13
Griffin & Bock (2000);
Ferreira & Griffin (2003)
3/30 Language Production Phonotactics, speech errors Oppenheim & Dell (2008) MD, KA, AH, AA, AF
4/1 Catch-up/Exam Review Chalkboard images, part 2
4/6 EXAM 2 Exam 2 instructions
4/8 Discourse Processing Gricean principles, pragmatics, common ground, conversational speech, homework #2 (see blackboard) Harley, Ch. 14
Noveck & Reboul (2008);
Richardson, Dale, & Kirkham (2007)
4/13 No class (Easter break)
4/15 Discourse Processing Intonation, prosodic prominence, disfluency Arnold et al. (2004);
Watson, Jacobs, & Buxo-Lugo (2019)
4/20 Machine Learning Deep neural nets, natural language processing, Class activity (Word2vec), Automatic speech recognition Harley, Ch. 6 (pp. 185-190), Ch. 11 (pp. 319-337)
Scharenborg (2007)
4/22 Language Disorders Developmental language disorder McMurray et al. (2019) Common ground homework due MD, KA, KB, AA, EB
4/27 Bilingualism The bilingual advantage Marian & Shook (2012);
de Bruin, Treccani, & Della Sala (2015)
4/29 Catch-up/Final Exam Review
5/7 FINAL EXAM (cumulative) 8:30 AM to 10 PM

Last updated by C. Toscano, 15-Jan-2020