Priming in Psychology and Psycholinguistics

In the later parts of the twentieth century, psychologists discovered that exposure to a particular stimulus sometimes changed response towards another stimulus that followed the initial stimulus. This was named as the priming effect. Priming effects, however, are seen only when the second stimulus immediately follows the first one. If there is a certain time gap between the two stimuli, priming will not be observed. We can elude this to memory constraints.

Priming in Psycholinguistics

Priming effects hold special value in the field of experimental psycholinguistics, a field of linguistics that deals with language and mind relationships. Words that share semantic features prime each other. Not only semantically related words, but words that are associated with each other in a language show priming effect. Similarly, sentences that have a similar syntactic structure can also prime one another. Hence, based on this, we have two kinds of priming effects, i.e. semantic priming and syntactic priming.

Semantic Priming in Psycholinguistics

Semantically similar words in a language prime each other. When language users are exposed to a word in their language and then exposed to another word that is semantically similar to it, the response time for the second word becomes faster. We call this the semantic priming effect. By exposure, we mean visual or auditory language input here.

Semantic Priming can be explained in a number of ways. In linguistic priming tasks, for instance, upon hearing a word in their language, the language users activate its corresponding concept in their mind. Along with the concept that the word matches with, language users also activate a number of other semantically related words and concepts in their mind. Hence, after hearing a word, when they immediately hear another word that is semantically similar to that word, since the related concept has already been activated, it takes relatively less time to respond. Semantic Priming reinforces the claims of the semantic network theory.

Semantic Priming is seen in lexical decision tasks. This would imply that people respond to lexical items faster if they are first exposed to semantically related lexical items.

Syntactic Priming in Psycholinguistics

Priming effects are not restricted to semantically related words. Sentences with similar syntax also prime each other. Syntactic Priming is common in language production. Response times for sentences become faster if similar sentences are introduced to the subjects and vice versa. For instance, if subjects are exposed to sentences with passive construction, they will respond faster to sentences with passive constructions and, likewise, slower to, say, sentences with active constructions.

Cross-Linguistic Priming

Cross-linguistic priming effects are seen in bilinguals, wherein there is a clear influence of processing of input (acoustic or visual) from one language on the response time to process another language. Many things come into play while we deal with cross-linguistic priming, such as the structural similarities between the two languages in question, occurrence of cognates and pseudo-cognates, etc. These results also strengthen the theoretical perspectives that both the languages share mental space and are simultaneously activated in bilinguals at a given time.

© 2015 Payal Khullar. All Rights Reserved.

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Author: Payal Khullar

Payal Khullar is a Linguist who loves writing (amongst other things). She is graduate in Botany from Delhi University and Masters in Linguistics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi- currently enrolled in the Ph.D Computational Linguistics programme at IIIT.

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