LINGUIST List 10.944

Fri Jun 18 1999

Review: MacWhinney (Corrected Review)

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

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  1. Dina Belyayeva, Review: MacWhinney, The Emergence of Language

Message 1: Review: MacWhinney, The Emergence of Language

Date: Review: MacWhinney, The Emergence of Language
From: Dina Belyayeva <>
Subject: Review: MacWhinney, The Emergence of Language

 Editor's note: Dr. Belyayeva's review of MacWhinney's _The 
Emergence of Language_ which appeared in LINGUIST issue 10.928 was 
inadvertently cropped short. What follows is the complete review. 

MacWhinney, B. (Ed.). (1999). The Emergence of Language. Lawrence 
Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Mahwah, NJ. 500 pages. 
Reviewed by Dina Belyayeva 
 This book is the first comprehensive collection of papers that 
promote an emergentist approach to language acquisition. 
Emergentism is a conceptual framework that does not explicitly 
reject either nativist or empiricist position but rather takes a 
step further from the current plateau of the nature-nurture debate 
by showing how language emerges from interactions between 
biological and environmental processes. The 16 chapters of the book 
were initially presented at the 28th Carnegie Mellon Symposium on 
Cognition, and offer contributions from a broad range of 
perspectives, such a connectionist, lexicalist, cognitive, 
functional and social-pragmatic. 
 Overview and Critical Evaluation: 
 The book is exceptionally well written which makes some highly 
specialized topics accessible to a much wider audience of linguists 
and psychologists interested in language acquisition issues. 
 The first chapter (The Emergence of Language: A Conspiracy Theory -
- Jeffrey L. Elman) offers an outline of a connectionist 
perspective on language developed by Elman and his colleagues in 
their 1996 book RETHINKING INNATENESS. Unlike nativism that defines 
innateness in terms of specific wiring at the level of 
representations, emergentism redefines innateness by offering a 
taxonomy of levels: representational, architectural and chronotopic 
(responsible for timing). An innate behavior, therefore, is a result 
of interactions between processes that modify environmental input at 
each of these levels. Elman uses computer simulations to demonstrate 
how non-domain-specific processing constraints result in domain-
specific behavior. Although he purposefully draws all the attention 
to a single level (chronotopic), more elaboration on how levels 
interact (particularly Table 1.1.) is needed for readers to 
appreciate the proposed taxonomy. 
 Elizabeth Bates and Judith C. Goodman (Chapter 2 - On the Emergence 
of Grammar from the Lexicon) take on the debate about domain-
specificity of language by offering a unified lexicalist approach 
to grammar acquisition and processing. In this chapter they pursue 
two objectives: to demonstrate (1) that grammar and lexicon are 
acquired by the same mental-neural mechanisms, and (2) that these 
mechanisms are not unique to language. To support their position 
they offer a summary of longitudinal and cross-sectional data from 
normal children that reveals strong correlation between vocabulary 
size and grammar development. Their reevaluation of existing 
experimental and longitudinal studies dealing with atypical 
populations helps to rid of some stereotypes that were often used 
as evidence for grammar-specific neural wiring in the brain. 
 A more moderate emergentist view on the role of the lexicon in 
grammar acquisition is offered by Adele E. Goldberg (Chapter 7 -- 
The Emergence of the Semantics of Argument Structure 
Constructions). According to this view, argument structure 
acquisition is an emergent property that derives from the processes 
of categorization and generalization of the meaningful input. 
Within this approach a particular role is assigned to light verbs 
that are characterized by more general semantics and greater 
accessibility in a wider variety of contexts. 
 An interesting diachronic perspective on emergence of grammar is 
proposed in Chapter 3 (Generativity and Variation: The Notion 'Rule 
of Grammar' Revisited -- T. Givon). As a premise for the discussion 
Givon offers a review of philosophical antecedents to nativist and 
empiricist positions. A Cognitive- Adaptive Perspective that he 
later details takes an intermediate position that is more in line 
with the emergentist trend. A range of typological and variational 
data is presented to support for this middle-ground position. Some 
acronyms (pp 96-97) may be not familiar to a wider audience of 
readers and need to be explained. 
 Chapters 4, 5, and 6 offer processing accounts that take into 
consideration statistical aspects of linguistic input. 
 Chapter 4 (The Emergence of Grammaticality in Connectionist 
Networks - Joseph Allen & Mark S. Seidenberg) begins with a 
discussion of problems created by the competence-performance 
distinction adopted by the generative approach. According to this 
approach statistical aspects of linguistic input (e.g. impoverished 
input, negative evidence) are excluded as important factors in 
language learning. To demonstrate the contrary the authors chose the 
concept of grammaticality. A&S used a variant of a simple recurrent 
network to demonstrate that grammaticality judgments do not 
necessarily require access to principles of grammar, but may be 
based on statistical regularities of linguistic input. 
 In Chapter 5 (Disambiguation and Grammar as Emergent Soft 
Constraints - Risto Miikkulainen & Marshall R. Mayberry, III) M&M 
present computer simulations to demonstrate how particular kinds of 
linguistics constraints (soft constraints) emerge from statistical 
regularities of word cooccurrence. Although their models 
successfully apply soft constraints by correlating new input with 
past contexts, it's not clear whether they will be able to resolve 
structural ambiguities that trigger garden-path processing. 
 Marryellen C. MacDonald (Chapter 6 - Distributional Information in 
Language Comprehension, Production, and Acquisition: Three Puzzles 
and a Moral) uses analyses of verb modification ambiguity and 
heavy-NP shift to demonstrate how processing constraints emerge 
from distributional information that was made available to a 
speaker in prior comprehension and production events. The same 
system of emergent constraints is proposed to govern language 
acquisition. In conclusion she offers a review of studies that can 
develop this branch of language acquisition research. It is 
surprising though that she does not consider the Optimality Theory 
accounts as potential contributors to the field. 
 Brian MacWhinney (Chapter 8 -The Emergence of Language from 
Embodiment) presents a unified theoretical framework of language 
organization and processing by using a cognitive ability of 
perspective-taking as a starting point for emergence of embodied 
meaning. Four perspectival systems (affordances; spatio-temporal 
reference frames; causal action chains; and social roles) are used 
as central organizing principles that provide common cognitive 
ground for many distinct language phenomena. MacWhinney outlines 
neurophysiological implications of the proposed hypothesis and 
clearly defines its limitations. 
 Catherine E. Snow (Chapter 9 - Social Perspectives on the Emergence 
of Language) promotes a view according to which children's 
linguistics abilities emerge from interactions between children's 
social capacities and social- pragmatic conditions of their 
immediate environment. She introduces a new form of bootstrapping -
- pragmatic precocity -- as the primary force that helps to take 
the language learning process off the ground. 
 Chapters 10, 11, and 12 address issues of lexical acquisition and 
processing. The first chapter in the group (Children's Noun 
Learning: How General Learning Processes Make Specialized Learning 
Mechanisms - Linda B. Smith) presents results from a series of 
longitudinal studies that demonstrate how general mechanisms of 
associative and attentional learning create shape bias in learning 
of count noun terms. The conclusion that word learning emerges from 
general l eaning processes not special to language follows the 
"party line" of the emergentisit program outlined by Elman. The 
author, however, is not sufficiently explicit on the criteria that 
distinguishes between language-specific and general learning 
processes. The remark that attentional learning can be also achieved 
by non-linguistic perceptible cues, such as hand gestures, 
inadvertently entails that signing is a non-linguistic behavior. 
 Chapter 11 (Emerging Cues for Early Word Learning - Roberta 
Michnick Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek & George Hollich) proposes 
the developmental lexical framework that captures mechanisms of 
early word learning. The authors adopt a hybrid emergentist 
position that attempts to offer a common ground for various 
approached to word learning, such as the constraints-based, social-
pragmatic and domain-general. The principles that were largely 
borrowed from the constraints-based literature are said to evolve 
from basic into more complex as children become more sophisticated 
in their abilities to weight a variety of cues. A new method (The 
Interactive Intermodal Preferential Looking Paradigm) is offered to 
illustrate how children learn to incorporate these principles. The 
method does not require cumbersome eye tracking equipment to measure 
duration of infants' attentional states. Yet, it is not clear how 
this paradigm can be implemented to register whether a child 
actually follows experimenter's gaze. As a model, the proposed 
hierarchy of principles lacks internal structure that could be used 
to define mechanisms responsible for transitions between and within 
 William Merriman (Chapter 12 - Competition, Attention, and Young 
Children's Lexical Processing) presents a model of children's 
lexical processing (CALLED) that ties many loose ends existing in 
the literature. The model's centerpiece is a device that uses 
associations between various dimensions (features, functions, 
exemplars) and contextual cues (objects, scenes, events) to acquire 
and access words. Words' retrieval can be affected by learned 
attentional responses to words. Factors affecting attention include 
recency and frequency effects, distinctiveness of features, and 
social, pragmatic and linguistic cues. What makes this model 
particularly attractive is that its competition-attention component 
can be used to construe lexical principles (e.g. Shape Bias and 
Mutual Exclusivity) as emergent properties. It also offers a rule 
that can predict which principles are most prominent at different 
points of lexical development. 
 The remaining chapters address issues of phonological development. 
 In Chapter 13 (Statistical Learning in Linguistic and Nonlinguistic 
Domains - Richard N. Aslin, Jenny R. Saffran & Elissa L. Newport) 
preferential listening technique was used to demonstrate infants' 
sensitivity to phonotactic regularities of artificial languages. 
The obvious discord between the experimental findings suggesting 
that general learning mechanisms are employed in language learning 
and concluding remarks that take a rather sharp turn towards 
nativism creates a rather awkward impression. If the purpose of the 
paper were to demonstrate that "unconstrained learning mechanisms 
will not, by themselves, correctly learn just those things that 
every human baby learns" , than the study should have been designed 
in a way that could generate supporting evidence. 
 Chapter 14 (The Emergence of Phonology from the Interplay of Speech 
Comprehension and Production: A Distributed Connectionist Approach -
David C. Plaut and Christopher T. Kello) and Chapter 15 (The 
Emergence of Faithfulness - Joseph Paul Stemberger & Barbara 
Handford Bernhardt) address the issue of phonological development 
from two different perspectives - connectionist and Optimality 
Theory (OT). P&K present a computer stimulation of the framework 
that captures computational aspects of phonological processing as 
the basis or emergent phonological representations. The stimulation 
provides an impressive research tool by being able to demonstrate 
how a model can learn from variable input and use the extracted 
knowledge to gradually achieve the target production level. S&B 
present their variant of OT, according to which constraints that 
guide children's phonological development are not innate domain-
specific processes, but rather emergent principles sensitive to 
communicative and information processing needs. 
 The final chapter (The Emergence of Language from Serial Order and 
Procedural Memory - Prahlad Gupta & Gary S. Dell) presents a 
connectionist account of sequential processing according to which 
language learning is a specific form of procedural memory 
functioning. Authors present behavioral data and computer 
simulations to demonstrate how phonological constraints emerge from 
learning contingencies of sequentially organized input. They use a 
speech error model to draw distinction between procedural and 
declarative memory. The proposed distinction is consistent with 
existing neuropsychological data. In addition to what was mentioned 
in the chapter, the presented account of lexical learning also has 
important implications for tip-of-the-tongue states and second 
language cquisition theories. (I have one remark regarding 
organization. It will be less confusing if experimental conditions 
are referred to by a single label: 'list- wide' <=> 'sequence-
 Reviewed by Dina Belyayeva. I graduated from the University of 
Florida and currently I am looking for a suitable position in New 
England. In my doctoral dissertation I proposed a model of the 
bilingual memory that has implications for many language 
acquisition phenomena. Language Acquisition and Bilingualism are 
the major areas of my research interests. Other areas of interest 
include semantic memory disorders and models of language production 
and comprehension. 
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