June Kathryn Bock

Portrait of June Kathryn Bock
June Kathryn Bock

June Kathryn Bock is currently a well-known emeritus professor at the University of Illinois who has made significant contributions to the field of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, a field of study that investigates language processes like language comprehension, language production, etc.

In the psycholinguistics field, she is known for her influential research on sentence processing, language production, and cognitive processes involved in speaking and understanding language. She has published ground breaking research in syntactic priming. Additionally, she has demonstrated how implicit memory affects language production.

Today Bock’s research is commonly referenced and used to develop interventions for individuals with language impairments.

Trailblazer in the Field

Bock developed her research prowess at Illinois while earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in cognitive psychology and a minor in linguistics. After obtaining her doctorate in 1975, she taught at various prestigious universities like MIT and Cornell before returning to teach at the University of Illinois’ Department of Psychology and Beckman Institute in 1991.

During the 1980s, the field of psycholinguistics was undergoing immense changes due to the new focus on language production. Bock was one of the drivers of this change due to her experimental studies of language production. Through her experiments, she proved the phenomenon of structural of syntactic priming, where a speaker carries over a particular grammatical or language structure throughout a sentence even if it’s not the best way of communicating.

For example, people sometimes say “I like both swimming and the sport of tennis,” rather than simply saying “I like swimming and tennis.” Another example is wordy expressions, such as “In spite of the fact that it was raining, she decided to go for a walk” which could be simplified to more efficient language like “Although it was raining, …” These awkward ways of speaking likely happen due to people being primed with seeing such language patterns elsewhere.

At the time, her discovery of syntactic priming was received with widespread skepticism since there was rarely and research on how it existed in language and there were few experimental approaches in language production. As researchers replicated and extended her results, her findings gained scientific validity. Structural priming soon became a useful measure to understand how the arrangement of words and phrases connect to memory and attention. Its discovery provided the strongest evidence for abstract structures in grammar.

Powerhouse of Memory

Bock’s discovery of syntactic priming also stirred up another major movement in cognitive psychology during the 80s. The concept of syntactic priming emphasized the difference between explicit and implicit memory. Specifically, people implicitly remember the structures of sentences and echo them. For example, someone is likely to say “A church was struck by lightning” after reading a sentence like “The referee was punched by a fan.”

At the University of Illinois, Bock further conducted research on how learning and memory affected language. She showed how syntactic priming can be long-lasting and argued that it was a type of implicit learning, learning that’s gained without awareness. Her work at the University reinforced the idea that the Midwest was a significant contributor to memory research.

  • The Beckman Institute – Dr. Bock teaches courses in psychology inside the Beckman Institute.
  • The Psychology Building – Dr. Bock also teaches courses on psycholinguistics in this building.

American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (2023, September 13). June Kathryn Bock. https://www.amacad.org/person/june-kathryn-bock

Bock, J. K. (1986). Syntactic persistence in language production. Cognitive Psychology, 18(3), 355–387. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(86)90004-6.  

Bock, K. (2013, August 27). Structural priming across languages. De Gruyter. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/ling-2013-0042/html

Dell, G., & Ferreira, V. (2016). Thirty years of structural priming: An introduction to the special issue. UC San Diego. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(86)90004-6. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0pg4680c

Linguistic Society of America. (2005). Kathryn Bock. 2005 LSA Institute – People. https://web.mit.edu/lsa2005/people/bios/bock.html

Yates, D. (2015, April 22). Three Illinois professors elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign News. https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/204359

Contributors: Summer Matthes