Emergentism and Second Language Acquisition

Emergentism and Second Language Acquisition,William O'Grady,Miseon Lee,Hye-Young Kwak

Emergentism and Second Language Acquisition   (Citations: 1)
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Language presents us with many puzzles. Why does it have the particular properties that it does? Why does it vary and change in certain ways, but not others? How is it acquired so quickly and with so little effort by pre-school children despite its apparent complexity? And why is the acquisition of a second language so difficult for adults, despite their intellectual sophistication and their access to carefully designed educational programs? An attractive feature of approaches to language based on Universal Grammar (UG) is that they offer an integrated account of these puzzles—an inborn system of grammatical categories and principles gives language its defining properties, places limits on the ways in which it can vary and change, and explains how even the most complex phenomena are acquired with such ease by children. With the help of additional assumptions, it even appears possible to offer insights into why the acquisition of a second language proves so challenging. Yet the UG-based program has encountered deep suspicion and resistance from many quarters during the half century that it has dominated explanatory work on language. For a significant segment of the professional linguistic community, it simply does not ring true. The objections vary with the commentator—UG principles are too abstract (Tomasello 2003:3-7), the type of nativism that UG seems to presuppose is biologically implausible (Elman et al. 1996, MacWhinney 2000), a focus on faculty-specific principles distances the study of language from the rest of cognitive science (Jackendoff 1988, 2002:xi- xii), the phenomena purportedly accounted for by UG theories are better explained in other ways (Hawkins 2004, O'Grady 2005, Haspelmath to appear), and so forth. But is there an alternative? In recent years, much of the opposition to the UG program has coalesced around a loosely associated set of ideas that have come to be grouped together under the rubric of emergentism. Despite the very considerable diversity of emergentist thought, there seems to be at least one central thesis to which all of its various proponents adhere: the complexity of language must be understood in terms of the interaction of simpler and more basic non-linguistic factors. In the case of language, it has been suggested that those factors include features of human physiology (the vocal tract, for instance), the nature of the perceptual mechanisms, the effect of pragmatic principles, the role of social interaction in communication, the character of the learning mechanisms, and
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