Read with open mind

May 14, 1999

Roy Harris is entitled to his idiosyncratic view of Gerry Altmann's The Ascent of Babel ("Babel and psychobabble", THES, May 7). However, his attack on psycholinguistics is almost incomprehensible from the editor of a journal called Language and Communication.

The past 30 years or so have seen the development of a vibrant study of language from a cognitive-scientific and neuroscientific perspective with the focus on how people acquire, represent and process language. What, Harris asks, do "experiments 'prove' about language in everyday life, where these cleverly contrived laboratory conditions do not obtain?" Well then, there is no point having your heart rate measured because when you leave the doctor's surgery it may fall to one beat a minute.

What use is it to try to comprehend how the mind works? Apart from the interest in understanding a key aspect of what it is to be human, psycholinguistics informs medical concerns, information technology and human communication in general. Harris's attitude seems to exclude huge areas from study and is bizarre for someone with an interest in human language.

Martin Pickering Reader in psychology Holly Branigan British Academy postdoctoral fellow Department of psychology University of Glasgow

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