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Review of  The Emergence of Language

Reviewer: Dina Belyayeva
Book Title: The Emergence of Language
Book Author: Brian Macwhinney
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 10.944

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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.