SLA Part 8: Emergentism

Up to now, I’ve been reviewing theories of SLA that try to explain the psychological processes involved in learning an L2: what goes on between our ears, you could say. In a recent tweet, David Deubelbeiss, in reference to my review, debunked what he referred to as “goofy black box ideas like a special lang. processing device in the brain”. This was enough to provoke a rude comment from me, but of course, David is simply expressing the increasingly widely held view that Chomsky’s time is up and it’s about time we left behind all this “rubbish” about black boxes. There is undoubtably something unsatisfactory about an appeal to a black box, but, to be fair, Chomsky’s UG theory is, first and foremost a theory of language, and the claim that the language knowledge we have is partly innate, that we’re “hard wired” for language, is an example of inference to the best explanation as it’s called by philosophers.  In other words, the LAD is a “logical” response to the poverty of the stimulus conundrum: given the knowledge that very young children have of language, and the limitations of the information they get from the environment, the best explanation is that they were born with some boot-strapping device, and we’ll call that the LAD. Furthermore, the cognitive theories I’ve looked at are actually attempts to describe, however indirectly, the black box and what’s going on inside it, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call them all “goofy”.

Nick Ellis: Emergentism 

One alternative to the innatist approach to SLA is emergentism, an umbrella term referring to a fast growing range of usage-based theories which adopt “connectionist” and associative learning views based on the premise that language emerges from communicative use. A leading spokesman for emergentism is Nick Ellis (not to be confused with Rod Ellis, who also writes about SLA). In his article “Frequency Effects in Language Processing” (part of a special issue of Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 2002, Vol. 24, 2, devoted to emergentism) Ellis argues that language processing is “intimately tuned to input frequency”, and expounds a usage-based theory which holds that “acquisition of language is exemplar based”. The paper is a real tour de force and I strongly recommend it. In fact, Nick Ellis writes beautifully; all his  papers are master classes in how to talk coherently and cohesively about complex issues, and to forcefully present your case.

The power law of practice is taken by Ellis as the underpinning for his frequency-based account, and then, through an impressive review of literature on phonology and phonotactics, reading and spelling, lexis, morphosyntax, formulaic language production, language comprehension, grammaticality, and syntax, Ellis argues that “a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances”, rather than knowledge of abstract rules, is what underlies the fluent use of language. In short, emergentists take language learning to be “the gradual strengthening of associations between co-occurring elements of the language”, and they see fluent language performance as “the exploitation of this probabilistic knowledge” (Ellis, 2002: 173).

Ellis often repeats his commitment to a Saussurean view, which sees “the linguistic sign” as a set of mappings between phonological forms and communicative intentions. He claims that “simple associative learning mechanisms operating in and across the human systems for perception, motor-action and cognition, as they are exposed to language data as part of a communicatively-rich human social environment by an organism eager to exploit the functionality of language are what drives the emergence of complex language representations” (see this link for the article).

Seidenberg and MacDonald: Emergentism

Another example of emergentist views is Seidenberg and MacDonald’s 1999 paper, which puts forward a similar “probabilistic constraints approach” to language acquisition. They explain that instead of equating knowing a language with knowing a grammar, emergentists adopt the functionalist assumption that language knowledge is “something that develops in the course of learning how to perform the primary communicative tasks of comprehension and production” (Seidenberg and MacDonald, 1999: 571). This knowledge is viewed as a neural network that maps between forms and meanings, and further levels of linguistic representation, such as syntax and morphology, are said to emerge in the course of learning tasks.

An alternative to “Competence” is also offered by Seidenberg and Macdonald, who argue that the competence-performance distinction excludes information about statistical and probabilistic aspects of language, and that these aspects play an important role in acquisition. The alternative is to characterize a performance system which handles all and only those structures that people actually use. Performance constraints are embodied in the system responsible for producing and comprehending utterances, not extrinsic to it.

Elizabeth Bates and associates

As a final example of emergentism, Bates et al., (1998) attempt to translate innateness claims into empiricist statements. They argue that innateness is often used as a logically inevitable, fall back explanation.

In the absence of a better theory, innateness is often confused with

  1.  domain specificity (Outcome X is so peculiar that it must be innate),
  2. species specificity (we are the only species who do X so X must lie in the human genome),
  3. localization (Outcome X is mediated by a particular part of the brain, so X must be innate), and
  4. learnability (we cannot figure out how X could be learned so X must be innate (Bates, et al., 1998: 590).

Instead of this unsatisfactory “explanation”, Bates et. al. believe that an empirically-based theory of interaction, a theory that will explain the process by which nature and nuture, genes and the environment, interact without recourse to innate knowledge, is “around the corner”.  Reviewing a taxonomy proposed by Elman et al. to identify different types of innateness and their location in the brain, Bates et. al. say

If the notion of a language instinct means anything at all, it must refer to a claim about cortical microcircuitry, because this is (to the best of our knowledge) the only way that detailed information can be laid out in the brain (Bates et al., 1998: 594).


Emergentism claims that complex systems exhibit ‘higher-level’ properties that are neither explainable, nor predictable from ‘lower-level’ physical properties, which puts them in a bit of a jam if they want to remain faithful to the empiricist doctrine and deny any kind of contribution from innate sources of knowledge. This is the big problem for emergentists: explaining complex representational systems without the concept of innate knowledge (and even of the mind) forces them to take a radical, sub-atomic view of the components of language. Gregg (2003), in his discussion of emergentism in SLA, notes that empiricist emergentism (which excludes the work of O’Grady) wants to do away with innate, domain-specific representational systems, and replace them with “an ability to do distributional analyses and to remember the products of the analyses” (Gregg, 2003: 55). Given this agenda, it’s surprising, says Gregg, that Ellis seems to accept the validity of the linguist’s account of grammatical structure. Surely this is contradictory.

As to the explanation of the language learning process, it is, as Ellis agrees, based on associative learning, and rests on advances in IT that have produced models of  associative learning processes in the form of connectionist networks. The severe limitations of connectionist models are highlighted by Gregg, who goes to the trouble of examining the Ellis and Schmidt model (see Gregg, 2003: 58 – 66) in order to emphasise just how little the model has learned and how much is left unexplained. The sheer implausibility of the enterprise strikes me as forcefully as it seems to strike Gregg. How can emergentists seriously propose that the complexity of language emerges from simple cognitive processes being exposed to frequently co-occurring items in the environment? How can “simple associative learning mechanisms operating in and across the human systems for perception, motor-action and cognition” explain our language knowledge?

Gregg wrote his article in 2003, since when Ellis has written a great deal more about emergentism (see his personal website – many of the articles can be downloaded  and I’d particularly recommend his 2015 article Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity, available for free download), but, despite lots of powerful argument, Ellis can’t point to much advance in the ability of connectionist models to do what children do, namely, learn the complexities of a natural language.

The Poverty of the Stimulus -again!

At the root of the problem of any empiricist account is the poverty of the stimulus argument. By adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology (where some kind of innate architecture is allowed, but not innate knowledge, and certainly not innate linguistic representations), emergentists have a very difficult job explaining how children come to have the linguistic knowledge they do. How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate?

Gregg summarises Laurence and Margolis’ (2001: 221) “lucid formulation” of the poverty of the stimulus argument:

  1. An indefinite number of alternative sets of principles are consistent with the regularities found in the primary linguistic data.
    2. The correct set of principles need not be (and typically is not) in any pre-theoretic sense simpler or more natural than the alternatives.
    3. The data that would be needed for choosing among those sets of principles are in many cases not the sort of data that are available to an empiricist learner.
    4. So if children were empiricist learners they could not reliably arrive at the correct grammar for their language.
    5. Children do reliably arrive at the correct grammar for their language.
    6. Therefore children are not empiricist learners.   (Gregg, 2003: 48)

Combining observed frequency effects with the power law of practice, and thus explaining acquisition order by appealing to frequency in the input doesn’t go very far in explaining the acquisition process itself. What role do frequency effects have? How do they interact with other aspects of the SLA process? In other words, we need to know how frequency effects fit into a theory of SLA, because frequency and the power law of practice in themselves don’t provide a sufficient theoretical framework, and neither does connectionism. As Gregg points out “connectionism itself is not a theory; it is a method, and one that in principle is neutral as to the kind of theory to which it is applied” (Gregg, 2003: 55).

My view is that emergentism stands or falls on connectionist models and that so far the results are disappointing. A theory that will explain the process by which nature and nuture, genes and the environment, interact without recourse to innate knowledge, remains “around the corner”.  It will be fantastic if Nick Ellis and all those working on emergentism turn out to be right, and, I’ll enthusiastically join in the celebrations, partly because if they’re right, then language learning will be shown to be an essentially implicit process, a process that gets little help from teaching based on using coursebooks to implement a grammar-based synthetic syllabus through PPP. I’ll discuss this a bit more in the final episode, Part 9, coming soon.


Bates, E., Elman, J., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1998).  Innateness and emergentism. In W. Bechtel & G. Graham (Eds.), A companion to cognitive science (pp. 590-601). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Ellis, N. (2002) Frequency effects in language processing: A Review with Implications for Theories of Implicit and Explicit Language Acquisition. Studies in SLA, 24,2, 143-188.

Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.

Greeg, K. R. (2003) The state of Emergentism in SLA. Second Language Research, 19, 2, 95-128.

Seidenburg, M. and Macdonald, M. (1997) A Probabilistic Constraints Approach to Language Acquisition and Processing. Cognitive Science Vol 23 (4), 569–588.

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