SLA Part 9: Nativism vs Emergentism


In this series of posts about SLA, I’ve focused on the psychological processes involved, and suggested that Pienemann’s Processability Theory is one of the strongest theories in the field. But, given the mounting interest in emergentist theories, I think I should end by looking at the differences between nativism and emergentism.

What is Language? 

I suggested in Part 6 that “the big issue” between formal and usage-based approaches concerns their different views of the nature of language; those working in the two camps can’t agree about how input gets processed because they can’t agree about what gets processed. It’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” problem, but, logically at least, the “What?” problem should come first. If language is regarded as a highly complex formal system best described by very abstract, very complicated rules constraining how words can be combined, then the explanation that we are hard wired with a processor dedicated to language learning which helps us to acquire linguistic competence seems reasonable. If, on the other hand, language is seen in terms of its communicative function, then it might seem more reasonable to take Saussure’s view that “linguistic signs arise from the dynamic interactions of thought and sound – from patterns of usage”. The signs are form-meaning mappings; we amass a huge collection of them through usage; and we process them by using relatively simple, probabilistic algorithms.

Construction Grammar 

I referred above to simple form-meaning mappings. Nick Ellis (2006, following Tomasello, 2003) sees “constructions” as the basic units of language representation.

Constructions are symbolic in that their defining properties of morphological, syntactic, and lexical form are associated with particular semantic, pragmatic, and discourse functions….. We learn constructions through using language, engaging in communication.  …  an individual’s creative linguistic competence emerges from the collaboration of the memories of all of the utterances in their entire history of language use and from the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them (Ellis, 2006. P. 100).

Shirai and Juffs ( 2017, p. 4) summarise construction grammar thus:

All kinds of form–meaning associations are considered to be constructions: words (book), morphemes (-ed), periphrastic constructions (be going to), idioms (put up with) syntactic constructions (ditransitive), with syntactic constructions themselves carrying a (non- compositional) meaning (e.g. open me a beer, even though the verb open does not have a meaning of transfer).

Having outlined his view of grammar, Tomasello explains L1 acquisition as a bottom up process, where children start by learning a small number of “items”, then “semi-productive patterns” and, finally, “fully productive constructions”. It’s important to point out that Tomasello argues that abstract knowledge of grammar emerges from the interaction of input and innate aspects of general cognition not specific to language (in other words, he doesn’t adopt a strict empiricist epistemology), and this position is also taken by Nick Ellis. We can also note that Pinker, a former champion of Chomsky’s nativist view of language, sees construction grammar as a better account of knowledge of language than Chomsky’s minimalist program (Jackendoff and Pinker, 2005,  p. 220).

Performance vs Competence 

The emergentist view of language is primarily concerned with performance data – things that people actually say, as revealed in the massive spoken and written corpora now available for inspection by very fast and very sophisticated concordance programs. Researchers using these new tools to look at these new data pay particular attention to lexical and morphological acquisition patterns. Meanwhile, the nativists’ formal framework favours experimental data which can tell them about not just what is, but also what is not possible in grammars.

So, to some extent at least, we can see arguments about SLA theories among formalists and emergentists as deriving from their view of language and, from the kinds of data which they collect and try to explain. For example, emergentists try to explain frequency effects in use, while formalists try to explain our knowledge of abstract categories. In the field of SLA, generative linguistics has dominated for about forty years, but there’s no doubt that we’re now seeing a shift, which is partly the result of new work by Tomasello and associates in L1 acquisition, and partly thanks to Nick Ellis’s work in promoting functional approaches to the study of SLA. As Shirai and Juffs ( 2017, p. 5) say:

Since the mid-1990s Ellis has been a major proponent of usage-based approach in SLA. In a series of influential articles (see, among others, Ellis, 1998, 2002, 2003) he advocated a connectionist, emergentist, and usage-based approach with construction grammar as linguistic framework (along the line of Tomasello’s approach in L1 acquisition).

A non-binary choice

We now have two approaches offering competing accounts of language acquisition, both first and second. But it isn’t a binary choice. Let me give three very brief examples.

1. In a personal communication to Hulstijn (2015), Pienemann and Lenzing comment on Processability Theory (PT) as follows:

The position that we assume is a combination of a minimal innate component and a constructivist component. …… The epistemological basis of PT, therefore, differs from both empiricism and from Chomsky’s approach.

2. O’Grady’s (2015) position, as briefly mentioned in Part 7,  is also distinct from both the usage-based and the generative school.

3. The increasing agreement between Mike Long and Nick Ellis, both of whom have a special interest in instructed SLA, indicates how scholars from very different research traditions are now converging on the same view of instructed SLA.

Common ground 

The common ground now shared by Long and N. Ellis is of enormous significance for those of us interested in ELT; despite differences in their views of language and of the kind of processing involved in SLA, both these scholars agree that SLA is a process whereby learners develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. This developing system is referred to as interlangage, and its development refers not just to syntax, but also to vocabulary, formulaic chunks, collocations, and sentence patterns. Furthermore, Long and N. Ellis agree that SLA is predominantly a matter of implicit learning, the result of learners using the target language for relevant, communicative purposes. Explicit learning is also important – vital, even – but, as I’ll suggest in the next post, it’s not best helped by the kind of explicit teaching which currently dominates ELT.


Ellis, N. (2006) Cognitive perspectives on SLA. AILA Review.

Hulstijn, J. (2015) How Different Can Perspectives on L2 Development Be? Language Learning, 65:1, pp. 210– 232.

Jackendoff, R. and Pinker, S. (2005) The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language: Reply to Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky. Cognition, 97, 211–25.

O’Grady, W. (2015). Processing determinism. Language Learning, 65, 6–32.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shirai, Y. and Juffs, A. (2017) Convergence and divergence in functional and formal approaches to SLA. Second Language Research, 33(1) 3–12.


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