Psycho-computational modelling of the mental lexicon

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


  • Vito Pirrelli
  • Claudia Marzi
  • Marcello Ferro
  • Franco Alberto Cardillo
  • R. Harald Baayen

Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Institute for Computational Linguistics, Pisa
  • Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen


Over the last decades, a growing body of evidence on the mechanisms governing lexical storage, access, acquisition and processing has questioned traditional models of language architecture and word usage based on the hypothesis of a direct correspondence between modular components of grammar competence (lexicon vs. rules), processing correlates (memory vs. computation) and neuro-anatomical localizations (prefrontal vs. temporo-parietal perisylvian areas of the left hemisphere). In the present chapter, we explore the empirical and theoretical consequences of a distributed, integrative model of the mental lexicon, whereby words are seen as emergent properties of the functional interaction between basic, language-independent processing principles and the language- specific nature and organization of the input. From this perspective, language learning appears to be inextricably related to the way language is processed and internalized by the speakers, and key to an interdisciplinary understanding of such a way, in line with Tomaso Poggio’s suggestion that the development of a cognitive skill is causally and ontogenetically prior to its execution (and sits “on top of it”). In particular, we discuss conditions, potential and prospects of the epistemological continuity between psycholinguistic and computational modelling of word learning, and illustrate the yet largely untapped potential of their integration. We use David Marr’s hierarchy to clarify the complementarity of the two viewpoints. Psycholinguistic models are informative about how speakers learn to use language (interfacing Marr’s levels 1 and 2). When we move from the psycholinguistic analysis of the functional operations involved in language learning to an algorithmic description of how they are computed, computer simulations can help us explore the relation between speakers’ behavior and general learning principles in more detail. In the end, psycho-computational models can be instrumental to bridge Marr’s levels 2 and 3, bringing us closer to understanding the nature of word knowledge in the brain.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWord Knowledge and Word Usage: A Cross-Disciplinary Guide to the Mental Lexicon
EditorsVito Pirrelli, Ingo Plag, Wolfgang Dressler
Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2020