A perennial question of scientists trying to understand human beings is the nature vs. nurture debate—are we a product of our genes or are we a product of our environment? In the late 1950’s when Chomsky took the linguistic world by storm with his Syntactic Structures, the pendulum swung in the “nativist” direction. His model for how humans learn languages became the dominant paradigm for decades, but as time went on, and as research on some of his proposals came back with mixed results, some linguists began to ask themselves if there might be a better explanation.
Emergentism is one of the main explanations for human learning (and language learning) that has challenged the preeminence of Chomskyan approaches, and it is a truly 20/21st century theory, building on ideas from constructivist and connectionist hypotheses, and drawing from work in cognitive linguistics, neurolinguistics, computational linguistics, corpus data, sociolinguistics, and other related fields to attempt to come up with an explanation for what is really going on in our brains when we learn and use languages.
A short blog post is not nearly enough space to give even a very brief overview of Emergentism, so I will focus on a couple of key thoughts. The basic idea is that the neurons in our brains form connections based on our experiences and interaction with our social and physical environment. There are almost uncountable numbers of connections, and they do not function in a linear fashion, but many connections can be activated simultaneously.
As we interact with our linguistic environment, we develop “constructions,” or chunks of meaningful language which are used as building blocks to create grammatical utterances. These constructions develop as we are repeatedly exposed to language data, and they are “probabilistic” (Ellis 2004). In other words, our exposure to language input makes it possible for us to anticipate the meaning that others are attempting to communicate. This capacity appears to be rule-governed behavior, but in reality, it is a reflection of a complexity of processing going on in our minds that is beyond comprehension.
At the core, the thing that appeals to me the most about Emergentism is how organic it is. It does not require a “language acquisition device” or linear processing that works like a machine. Instead, it describes a beautiful, intricate dance of neurons working in concert and producing not only the ability to understand the communication of others, but also to create beautiful and original utterances. This interplay of neurons makes it possible for us to make use of patterns such as the transitivity of verbs without even being aware that such a pattern exists. The system is also able to discern which parts of the input around us are not relevant, and we learn to filter out extraneous data. It works like the rest of our bodies in that there is both an elegance and economy to its structure, but there is also strategic redundancy that makes it possible for us to overcome difficulties when one part of the system is not working properly.
Reflecting on this makes me want to break out in a hymn of praise to the Creator who designed the original structure of our brains with such beauty and capacity.