CGS 5910: Psychology of Language (Language Processes)

A course on the cognitive science of language

Fall 2018

Note: This syllabus is a work in progress!

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 laboratory exercises in class 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 ths 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 1 100 20%
Exam 2 100 20%
Final Exam 150 30%
Homework/Lab write-ups 100 20%
Participation/"Experts" 50 10%


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 and Lab Assignments

There will be four 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. Three of these assignments will be based on lab activities we work on together in class. Details of homework/lab assignments are included in the schedule.

Discussion Experts and Participation

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 an Experts group who will lead the discussion of a research article about the day's topic. The members of the group should come to class prepared to lead a discussion on the findings from the article. Group members do not need to meet before class, nor do they need to necessarily consult with each other about the article we are discussing (but you are welcome to do this if you want!). Instead, each student 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 member of the group should contribute to presenting their thoughts and guiding the discussion in 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).

Grading Scale

Grades will be based on the percentage of points earned on exams and homework assignments; 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

Note: Readings not yet finalized!

Date Unit Topic Readings Deadlines/Notes
8/27 Overview Cognitive science and the study of language Harley, Ch. 1
Miller (1965)
8/29 Overview Information processing and connectionism Harley Appendix
McMurray (2000)
Bring laptops to class
9/3 No class (Labor Day)
9/5 Overview Theoretical debate: Rules vs. statistics, Lab 1 (Multi-layer perceptrons) Pinker & Ullman (2002)
Saffran (2003)
Bring laptops to class, Conversational interaction assignment due
9/10 Speech Perception Phonetics, IPA transcription, speech categorization Harley, Chapter 2 (pp. 30-36)
Harley, Chapter 9 (pp. 259-262)
Schouten, Gerrits, & Van Hessen (2003)
IPA transcription activity
9/12 Speech Perception Models of speech perception Liberman & Whalen (2000)
Holt & Lotto (2008)
Lab 1 write-up due
9/17 Word Recognition Properties of the lexicon, word segmentation, gradiency Harley, Ch. 9 (pp. 265-end)
Pisoni & Levi (2007)
Lexical neighborhoods activity
9/19 Word Recognition Interactivity in word recognition, Lab 2 (TRACE) Harley, Ch. 9 (pp. 263-265), McClelland, Mirman, & Holt (2006) Bring laptops to class
9/24 Word Meaning Theories of word meaning; real-time semantics Harley, Ch. 6 (pp. 185-190), Ch. 11 (pp. 319-337)
9/26 Word Meaning Rethinking the lexicon Elman (2004)
10/1 Catch-up/Exam Review Lab 2 write-up due
10/3 EXAM 1
10/8 Overview Language: Product or action? Clark (1997)
Pinker (1994)
10/10 Sentence Processing Syntax, structure first models Harley, Ch. 10 Syntactic analysis activity
10/15 No class (Fall break)
10/17 No class (Fall break)
10/22 Sentence Processing Constraint-based models and "good enough" processing Altmann (1998)
Ferreira, Bailey & Ferraro (2002)
Garden path sentences activity
10/24 Sentence Processing Interactions: Sentence processing and word recognition Levy (2009)
Dahan & Tannenhaus (2004)
10/29 Language Production Sentence planning, lexical selection and access Harley, Ch. 13
10/31 Language Production Phonotactics, speech errors Dell (1990)
11/5 Discourse Processing Gricean principles, pragmatics in production, common ground Harley, Ch. 14
Noveck & Reboul, 2008
11/7 Discourse Processing Intonation, prosodic prominence, disfluency Arnold et al. (2007)
11/12 Overview Theoretical debate: Nativism vs. empiricism Harley, Ch. 4
Elman et al. (1995), Ch. 1
11/14 Catch-up/Exam Review
11/19 EXAM 2
11/21 No class (Thanksgiving break)
11/26 Machine Learning Connectionism reborn! Deep neural nets LeCun et al. (2015)
11/28 Machine Learning Natural language processing, Word2vec, Lab 3 (simple recurrent networks) Sutskever et al. (2014) Bring laptops to class
12/3 Machine Learning Automatic speech recognition, speech synthesis, WaveNet Hinton et al. (2012)
12/5 Speech and Language Disorders Developmental language disorders; specific language impairment McMurray et al. (2014) Lab 3 write-up due
12/10 Speech and Language Disorders Speech recognition and hearing loss Toscano & Allen (2014)
12/12 Catch-up/Final Exam Review
TBD FINAL EXAM (cumulative)

Last updated by J. Toscano, 20-Mar-2018