Usage based Theories Part 2


In a recent blog post I said:

“UB theories are increasingly fashionable, but I’m still not impressed with Construction Grammar, or with the claim that language learning can be explained by appeal to noticing regularities in the input”.

Scott Thornbury replied:

“Read Taylor’s The Mental Corpus (2012) and then say that!”.  

Well I’ve had a second go at reading Taylor’s book, and here’s my reply, based partly on a review by Pieter Seuren

Taylor’s thesis is that knowledge of a language can be conceptualized in terms of the metaphor of a “mental corpus”. Language knowledge is not knowledge of grammar rules, but rather  “accumulated memories of previously encountered utterances and the generalizations which arise from them.” Everybody remembers everything in the language that they have ever heard or read. That’s to say, they remember everything they’ve ever encountered linguistically, including phonetics, the context of utterances, and precise semantic, morphological and syntactic form. Readers may well think that this has much in common with Hoey’s (2006) theory, and that’s not where the similarities end: like Hoey, Taylor offers no explanaton of how people draw on this “literally fabulous” memory. Taylor says nothing about the  formula of analysis in memory; nothing about the internal structure of that memory; nothing about how speakers actually draw on it; nothing about the kind of memory involved; “in short, nothing at all”.

Seuren argues that while there’s no doubt that speakers often fall back on chunks drawn holistically from memory, they also use rules. Thus, criticism of Chomsky’s UG is no argument against the viability of any research programme involving the notion of rules.

Taylor never considers the possibility of different models of algorithmically organized grammar. One obvious possibility is a grammar that converts semantic representations into well-formed surface structures, as was proposed during the 1970s in Generative Semantics. One specific instantiation of such a model is proposed in my book Semantic Syntax (Blackwell, Oxford 1996), … This model is totally non-Chomskyan, yet algorithmic and thus rule-based and completely formalized. But Taylor does not even consider the possibility of such a model.

Without endorsing Seuran’s model of grammar, or indeed his view of language, I think he makes a good point. He concludes

Apart from the inherent incoherence of Taylor’s ‘language-as-corpus’ view, the book’s main fault is a conspicuous absence of actual arguments: it’s all rhetoric, easily shown up to be empty when one applies ordinary standards of sound reasoning. In this respect, it represents a retrograde development in linguistics, after the enormous methodological and empirical gains of the past half century.

In a tweet, Scott Thornbury points to Martin Hilbert’s (2014) more favourable review of Taylor’s book, but neither he nor I have a copy of it, so we’ll have to wait while Scott gets hold of it.

Meanwhile, let’s return to the usage based (UB) theory claim that language learning can be explained by appeal to noticing regularities in the input, and that Construction Grammar is a good way of describing the regularities that are noticed in this way.

Dellar & Walkley, and Selivan, the chief proponents of “The Lexical Approach”, can hardly claim to be the brains of the UB outfit, since they all misrepresent UB theory to the point of travisty. But there are, of course, better attempts to describe and explain UB theory, most noteably by Nick Ellis (see, for example Ellis, 2019). Language can be described in terms of constructions (see Wuff & Ellis, 2018), and language acquisition can be explained by simple learning mechanisms, which boil down to detecting patterns in input: when exposed to language input, learners notice frequencies and discover language patterns. As Gregg (2003) points out, this amounts to the claim that language learning is associative learning.

When Ellis, for instance, speaks of ‘learners’ lifetime analysis of the distributional characteristics of the input’ or the ‘piecemeal learning of thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction  of regularities’, he’s talking of association in the standard empiricist sense.

Here we have to pause and look at empiricism, and its counterpart rationalism.

Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge. There’s no such thing as “mind”; we’re born with a “tabula rasa”, our brain an empty vessel that gets filled with our experiences and so our knowledge is a posteriori, dependent wholly upon our history of sense experience. Skinner’s version of Behaviourism serves as a model. Language learning, like all learning, is a matter of associating one thing with another, with habit formation.      

Compare this to Chomsky’s view that what language learners get from their experiences of the world can’t explain their knowledge of their language: a better explanation is that learners have an innate knowledge of a universal grammar which captures the common deep structure of all natural languages. A set of innate capacities or dispositions enables and determines their language development. In my opinion, there’s no need to go back to the historical debate between rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Locke: indeed, I think that these comparisons are often misleading, usually because those that use them to argue for UB theories give a very distorted description of Descartes, and fail to appreciate the full implications of adopting an empiricist view. What’s important is that the empiricism adopted by Nick Ellis, Tomasello and others today is a less strict version than the original, – talk of mind and reason is not proscibed, although for them, the simpler the mechanisms employed to explain learning, the better.

Chomsky is the main target; motivated by the desire to get rid of any “black box” and any appeal to inference to the best explanation when confronted by arguments about the poverty of the stimulus, the UB theorists appeal to frequency, Zipfian distribution, power laws, and other flimsy bits and pieces in order to replace the view that language competence is knowledge of a language system which enables speakers to produce and understand an infinite number of sentences in their language, and to distinguish grammatical sentences from ungrammatical sentences; while language learning goes on in the mind, equipped with a special language learning module to help interpret the stream of input from the environment. Such a view led to theories of SLA which see the L2 learning process as crucially a psycholinguistic process involving the development of an interlanguage, where L2 learners gradually approximate to the way native speakers use the target language.

We return to Nick Ellis’s view. Language is a collection of utterances whose regularities are explained by Construction Grammar, and language learning is based on associative learning – the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities. I’ve already expressed the view that Construction Grammmar seems to me little more than a difficult to grasp taxonomy, an a posteriori attempt to classify bits of attested language use collected from corpora; while the explanation of how we learn this grammar relies on associative learning processes which do nothing to adequately explain SLA or what children know about their L1. Here’s a bit more, based on the work of Kevin Gregg, whose view of theory construction in SLA is more eloquently stated and more carefully argued than that of any scholar I’ve ever read.

N. Ellis claims that language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment. Gregg (2003) uses the example of the concept SUBJECT to challenge Ellis’ claim.

 The concept enters into various causal relations that determine various outcomes in various  languages: the form of relative clauses in English, the  assignment  of reference in Japanese anaphoric  sentences, agreement  markers on verbs, the existence of expletives in  some languages, the form of the verb in others, the possibility of certain null arguments in still others and so on.

Ellis claims that the concept SUBJECT emerges; it’s the effect of environmental influences that act by forming associations in the speaker’s mind such that the speaker comes to have the relevant concepts as specified by the linguist’s description. But how can the environment provide the necessary information, in all languages, for all learners to acquire the concept?  What sort of environmental information could be instructive in the right ways, and how does this information act associatively?

Gregg comments:

Frankly, I do not think the emergentist has the ghost of a chance of showing this, but what I think hardly matters. The point is that so far as I can tell, no emergentist has tried. Please note that connectionist simulations, even if they were successful in generalizing beyond their training sets, are beside the point here. It is not enough to show that a connectionist model could learn such and such: In order to underwrite an emergentist claim about language learning, it has to be shown that the model uses information analogous to information that is to be found in the actual environment of a human learner. Emergentists have been slow, to say the least, to meet this challenge.

Amen to that.

So, the choice is yours. If you choose to accept Dellar’s account of language and language learning, then you base your teaching on the worst “principles” of language and language learning in print. If you choose to follow Nick Ellis’ account, then you’ll probably have to pass on trying to figure out Construction Grammar, or explaining not just what children know about their L1 with zero input from the environment, but also how associative learning explains adult L2 learning trajectories as reported in hundreds of studies over the last 50 years. If you choose to accept one or another cognitive, psycholinguistic theory of SLA which sees L2 learning as a process of deleoping interlanguages, then you are left with the problem of providing what Gregg refers to as the property theory of SLA – In what does the capacity to use an L2 consist?; What are the properties of the language which is learned in this way? Chomsky’s explanation of language and language learning might well be wrong, but it’s still the best description of language competence on offer, (language, quite simply, is not exclusively a tool for social interaction), and it’s still the best explanation of what children know about language and how they come to know it.  


Ellis, N. (2019) Essentials of a Theory of Language Cognition. The Modern Language Journal, 103 (Supplement 2019).

Seuren, P. (1996) Semantic Syntax. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wuff. S. and Ellis, N.  (2018) Usage-based approaches  to second language acquisition. Downloadable here:

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