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Psychology of Language: A Critical Introduction.

It is perhaps significant that Forrester's book is entitled Psychology of Language rather than The Psychology of Language, for it provides an account not of the field of psycholinguistics as traditionally conceived, but rather of the author's vision for the future development of the field. In particular, Forrester's primary aim is 'to outline a psychology of language which places at centre-stage the importance of communication in a broad sense of the term' (p. 16). Rather confusingly, though, he uses 'psychology of language' to refer both to traditional psycholinguistics and to the broader approach which he is advocating.

Forrester argues that traditional psycholinguistics, having been dominated by cognitivism and structuralism, has little to offer to those who aim to understand language as communication. To rectify this, the psychology of language should extend its domain of inquiry and become more closely integrated with alternative approaches to the study of language, both from other areas of psychology and from other disciplines. Forrester emphasizes the need for methodological diversity, theoretical diversity and above all a commitment to reflexive critical inquiry, which involves making explicit the theoretical assumptions underlying a particular approach.

The book is structured around three themes, which are focused on successively: thinking, talk and text. The 'thinking' theme is used to characterize approaches (such as Chomsky's) which view language as a formal object or structure 'in the head' of the individual. This is contrasted with a view of language as 'talk', where the emphasis is on how language is used to communicate in everyday social interactions. Further, language as 'talk' is contrasted with language as 'text', which is produced in non-interactive contexts, and is typically more conventionalized and more permanent than 'talk'.

Forrester highlights three aims of the thinking-talk-text theme:

(1) to emphasize the distinction between language as structure and language as a process of communication;

(2) to provide a trajectory for the topics covered and hence to show how these diverse topics could fit into the overall framework of a psychology of language;

(3) to provide insights into points of contact, integration and potential conflict between psychology and other disciplines with an interest in language.

While the second and third of these aims are realized very successfully, the first aim is more problematical. The thinking talk-text distinction does not map neatly onto the distinction between language as structure and language as a process of communication. For example, thinking is described as 'self-communication', and yet at the same time the language as thinking approach is equated with the language as structure approach and so is contrasted with the language as communication approach. Also, by equating the structuralist approach to language with the 'thinking' theme, Forrester is led to attribute to Chomsky a cognition-dominant view of the relationship between language and thinking. This is potentially misleading since Chomsky is usually regarded as emphasizing the autonomy of the language faculty relative to other aspects of cognition. Similar difficulties arise from Forrester's tendency (particularly in chapters 2 and 3) to equate cognition-dominant views with individualistic approaches and language-dominant views with social constructionist approaches, and indeed from his more general tendency to portray cognition as inside the individual's head and language as intrinsically social. Again, this is potentially misleading in that it could be interpreted as implying that cognitive processes are not influenced by social interaction.

The scope of Forrester's book is impressively wide. Chapter 1 sets the scene by outlining the diversity of disciplines involved in the study of language, by giving a brief historical overview of psycholinguistics, and by introducing the theme of thinking, talk and text. The thinking theme provides the focus for chapters 2 and 3, which critically assess some of Chomsky's theories of grammatical structure (especially his characterization of the mind as a recursive device) and various formal approaches to the study of meaning. By discussing the acquisition and understanding of deictic terms, chapter 4 presents a convincing case for the need to integrate linguistic analyses with analyses of interactional and cultural contexts. This discussion serves as a bridge to the talk theme, which is explored in chapters 5 and 6 through an account of conversational analysis, from an ethnomethodological perspective. In chapter 7, conversational analysis is critiqued by discussing power relations and ideology in language, and this leads into a comparison between talk and text. An introduction to semiotics is presented in chapter 8 in order to provide a background for the next two chapters, which address the text theme by considering some of the processes involved in reading and writing, from the perspective both of cognitive psychology/psycholinguistics and of literary criticism/critical theory. In the final chapter, Forrester discusses the discourse analysis approach within social psychology, as a means of drawing together the themes of the book and as a test case for his argument that the psychology of language should extend its traditional boundaries.

Interwoven with these wide-ranging topics, there is a strong emphasis throughout the book on the philosophy, history and sociology of science. For example, Forrester traces the influence of such movements as structuralism, deconstructionism and postmodernism, and he stresses the importance of recognizing the relationships between theory, method and data.

Not surprisingly, there is a price to be paid for the breadth of coverage. Within each area, Forrester is highly selective about the topics which he covers in depth. His book can be likened to a large-scale map with a few inset boxes containing smaller-scale plans - designed for the traveller who is considering going to neighbouring lands and wants to get a flavour of what it will be like there. For this reason, the book is well suited to senior undergraduates, postgraduates and researchers, particularly those who already have a sound knowledge of one field of language study and are interested in exploring allied fields. Such readers will be likely to find Forrester's book a thought-provoking, challenging introduction to alternative theoretical and methodological approaches. It would, for example, make an excellent resource for discussion in honours tutorials/seminars. However, it will probably prove less suitable as a textbook for students on introductory level courses, due to the selective nature of its detailed coverage, the abstract level of some passages, and the need to master several different (and demanding) repertoires of technical terms and concepts in rapid succession.

In Psychology of Language, Forrester presents a persuasive case for the need to integrate diverse approaches to the study of language, and he successfully highlights many of the gaps and potential conflicts between these. Little is said, though, about the precise nature of the proposed integration or about how this might be achieved. To return to the map analogy, would-be travellers are encouraged to believe that it will be possible and beneficial to travel from one land to another, but they are not provided with much detail about the interconnecting routes. Presumably proper roads and bridges will not be built until the travellers engage in genuine dialogue and collaboration with the locals. Thus, Forrester's book represents a preliminary but crucial step along a faintly trodden path.

MORAG L. DONALDSON (Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh)
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Author:Donaldson, Morag L.
Publication:British Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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