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Review of  What it Takes to Talk

Reviewer: Yufei Ren
Book Title: What it Takes to Talk
Book Author: Paul Ibbotson
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 32.1541

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The book “What it Takes to Talk: Exploring Developmental Cognitive Linguistics” written by Dr. Paul Ibbotson is aimed to investigate the role of cognition in the language learning process and address the developmental mechanism in balance between creativity and conformity in language acquisition and use. In so doing, conceptual, analytical and methodological innovations are provided in the book. In the beginning, the book first outlines the reasons to explore the relationship between language and cognition in human development for better understanding the developmental trajectory of language itself. The reasons come from illustrations of the (re)unification of language and cognition, the necessity to integrate language and cognition, and arguments from genetics, atypical populations and neuroscience. Arguments from other relevant disciplines, that is human evolution, comparative psychology and typology, computational modelling, artificial intelligence and robotics, can also support the exploration. Then the book explores how the cognitive and social world interacts with, constrains, and predicts language use from developmental perspective. The cognitive perspective can be seen from detailed explanation and/or analysis of the role of memory in language development, the ability to make categories and form analogies, as well as the allocation of attention and inhibition in language acquisition. It is followed by the perspective of social cognition in language development, which can be clearly seen from the role of social cognition, cooperative action in language development, as well as driving mechanism in normative reasoning, discourse and narrative. Based on the exploration, the book finally offers an integrative approach (i.e. developmental cognitive linguistic approach) to reveal the dynamic nature of language development.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part includes Chapter 1 entitled with “Talking of Cognition” consisting of 6 sections, which briefly reviews the relationship between language and cognition in human development and gives rationales to the reasons for reunification of language and cognition from the evidence of neurobiological, evolutionary and computational processing. Ever since Chomsky’s (1957, 1965) language faculty and Fodor’s (1983) modularity of mind, language has been traditionally taken as domain-specific. But this traditional view of language has its limitation in explaining the complex picture of linguistic phenomena and/or related behaviors. General cognition lies almost everywhere in language, so it is necessary to review the encapsulated language model. From the perspective of developmental psychology, genetics study shows that double dissociation of human brain existed in Williams syndrome and developmental language disorder. Anatomy of Broca’s and Wernicke’s area, and arcuate fasciculus fiber pathway which was regarded to support language as domain-specific, have underestimated the distribution and interconnectivity of language in the brain. From the evolutionary and comparative approach, cognitive capacities should be intertwined with cultural learning. Evidence from computational modelling, artificial intelligence and robotics also supports the close relationship between language and cognition. For example, computational accuracies have been improved when dovetailing (supplemented) with other cognitive functions such as memory. Cognitive cues supplement natural language to deal with rather messy and complicated natural language processing.

The second or the middle part of the book consists of 4 chapters (Chapters 2-5), mainly delving into the driving mechanism of language development from a psychology perspective. To be specific, domain-general capacities, that is, memory, attention inhibition, categorization, analogy and social cognition are taken as function inquiry in language development. Chapter 2 focuses on the role of memory in language learning, which can be seen from the evidence of how working memory and long-term memory influence, predict, and make a detailed explanation of the development of language. Computer modelling of memory in language can give further support to the interaction of memory in language. Chapter 3 examines how cognition and language mutually function, namely, observation of categorization and analogy in language can help to understand the interactional function. For instance, the concept of prototypicality and basic categorization had been shown early in infants, correlating with their later language ability, and thus, may serve as the basis of language segmentation, especially in event cognition and verb mapping. Chapter 4 describes two specific cognitive abilities in language information processing, that is, attention and inhibition available for language development and the degree of freedom available for linguistic generalizations. Attention and inhibition are important cognitive abilities that constrain the information available for language. This can be exemplified from eye-gaze which is regarded as the primary cue to how attention is attributed, eye-gaze is definitely directed by linguistic subjects as more focus is paid to the subjects of sentences. While inhibition is a robust predictor of language ability, which can be observed from the performance in verb-tense marking. The above-mentioned four chapters examine the interrelation between non-social aspects of cognition and language development. Chapter 5 comes to the role of social cognition in language development, which is focused on how social cognition constrains language meaning and maps the ways for language development. Cooperative action distinguishes humans from animals, and therefore normative reasoning is conventional to cooperation including language. Among which, degree of freedom should be taken into account for language to happen.

The third or the last part (Chapter 6 entitled Talking of cognition) concludes with the integrative approach to tackle the complex issues in language and cognition. The dynamic system theory (DST) to study developmental cognitive linguistics is proposed, and the rationale to view language as a dynamic system shaped by culture is also considered. The basic logic of developmental cognitive linguistics is that the developmental trajectory of language is contingent on that of cognition and language relies on basic cognition abilities while interacting with cognition. This chapter summarizes evidence and elaboration from previous chapters to reinforce its primary argument that human language is developed with its deep integration with cognition and the necessity to explain language phenomenon from cognitive perspectives. Further questions that remain to be solved are listed at the end of this chapter.


This book offers a new insight into the study of language development and cognition, putting cognition at the heart of the language learning process. Its aim to explore the contribution of cognition to language development and their interrelationship is explicitly stated in the book, challenging the idea that language acquisition can be meaningfully understood as a purely linguistic phenomenon. The book begins with an introduction of the primary controversies in linguistics, that is, the modularity of mind and the language evolution issues. For the modularity issue, the book evaluates Fodor’s (1983) theory and then initiates a discussion which is focused on whether language is domain-specific or domain-general. In this context, the book clarifies language is domain-general, which is fresh in the study of language learning, since learners may not be concentrated only on the domain of language aspect in the course of learning. As for the language evolution issue, two major theoretical approaches are described respectively in terms of language development: universal grammar approach (Chomsky, 1957, 1965) and the usage-based approach (Tomasello, 2003; Croft, 2001). This book emphasizes language as domain general with relevance to cognitive abilities and supports the usage-based approach, extending to child language acquisition and language development for inquiry into the nature of language and the fundamental role of cognition in language development. Based on the exploration of each domain (i.e. memory, attention, inhibition, categorization, analogy and social cognition) shaping the development of sounds, words and grammar, the book offers the developmental cognitive linguistic approach to explain the complex picture of language acquisition and use, making a conclusion that language is special because it could be nature’s finest example of cognitive recycling and reuse, which is beneficial for further study from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The book is glamourous in investigating language development from an interdisciplinary perspective such as cognitive science, thus making readers interested in exploring the nature of language encouraging and inspiring from a multi-perspective investigation, rather than only from one linguistic school such as the rule-based principle. As pointed out early by Geoffrey (1980), the biggest danger in linguistics is that people are totally governed by one school; how to integrate ideas in relevance to other approaches is essential in linguistics studies. What’s more, this book makes its arguments in a rather convincing manner. Theoretically speaking, as we could see from the content evaluation, there is a strong logic in the arguments, the book elaborates its main arguments and makes comparison to what the different approach (mainly from innatism) claims, which definitely helps readers understand the clear theoretical framework of the argument concerned. Empirically speaking, related experiment schemas are selected precisely and carefully described in the book. For example, the code used in R-Package is made available in the book to welcome opening contributions to it, whether it is technical advancement or necessary details confirmed through experiments. As written in the book, “this (Frequency Filter) could be as exploratory research with no a priori assumptions about the nature of over and underrepresented categories to generate hypothesis for further corpus or experimental investigations (p154)”. Not only can readers find theoretical and empirical inspirations in linguistic related studies, they could also be motivated to have more interest than ever before in investigating developmental cognitive linguistics. Furthermore, in the closing chapter, the book puts forward a problem with the robustness of correlations between language and cognition related to publication bias. This is thought-provoking for future study, as stated in the book “understanding this pattern will require tackling the ‘file-drawer’ problem whereby any statistically significant association found between language and cognition is much more likely to be published than those who fail to find an association (p129)”. Data collected in the experiments are well designed with a solid foundation, which guarantees the strong arguments claimed in the book.

The attraction of this book is especially manifested in its creativity and space for future studies. Since the view of language interacting with development is established on the basis of cognition, further investigations of how the interaction is achieved and what the mechanism underlying this interaction should be of great significance for better and deeper understanding of human language. In this regard, Dynamic System Theory (DST) exemplifies how language, as a dynamic system, is modified according to various factors. Degree of freedom is emphasized in the book, illustrating how cognition and social cues constrain language boundaries of what can/should be defined. Detailed and complex interaction in terms of cognitive capabilities included in the book under the framework of dynamic network analysis is a fertile area, which needs to be examined in the future.

One flaw of the book is that many details concerning language as adaptive system and the mechanisms or algorithms related to degree of freedom have not been provided. The flaw, to some extent, may leave spaces for readers to have their own perspectives and/or judgements. However, it is no doubt that the book offers a fresh insight into the area of language and cognition, leading readers to be interested in further exploring the nature of the language learning process from the cognitive perspective.


Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Croft, William. 2001. Radical Construction Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, Jerry A. 1983. Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Geoffrey, Sampson. 1980. Schools of Linguistics: Competition and Evolution. London: Hutchinson.

Paul, Ibbotson. 2020. What it Takes to Talk: Exploring Developmental Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton

Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Yufei Ren is currently a PhD student in Linguistics at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. She would like to find out the algorithm functioning in mind when people are making categorization and judgments especially related to words and language. Her main research interests include psycholinguistics, language acquisition, and neurolinguistics.
Gang Cui is a Professor at the Department of Foreign Language, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. His research interests are cognitive linguistics and neurolinguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783110644418
Pages: 224
Prices: U.S. $ 114.99