language acquisition upside down

One place where the thorny problems of linguistic theory become most obvious and demand the most determined engagement is in the area of child language acquisition. (The other, I think, is language variation and change, unless I just say that because these are what I find the most interesting.)

Take the concept of language structure. The belief that language has structure is, naturally, fundamental to the discipline of linguistics. But it is possible to understand this in radically different ways.

According to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff in their book, Origins of Grammar, theorising about child language is generally done according to one of two broad approaches, which they characterise as “outside-in” versus “inside-out”. “Outside-in” includes social-interactional theories and cognitive theories; “inside-out” includes the various permutations of nativism.

One of these approaches, they say, “contends that language structure exists outside the child, in the environment.” If I didn’t tell you any more, would you be able to say which of the two options – ‘interactionist’ or ‘nativist’ – was being described here?

In fact, HP&G are referring to social-interactional/cognitive theories as believing that language structure exists outside the child (nativist theories rely instead on the innate language-specific knowledge).

Now it is quite possible that some theorists on the interactionist side do believe in language structure as having some sort of real-if-‘abstract’, independent existence. This would betray itself by, for example, the use of terms like “finding” or “discovering” things like “units” (or the boundaries between units) such as segments, morphemes, phrases, clauses in the ambient language. Such interactionists would then share with nativists the view that (spoken) language embodies or comprises real-if-‘abstract’ units organised in a real-if-‘abstract’ structure, and as the job of speakers is to produce speech with these properties, so the job of the listener is to recognise or calculate the identity of the units in what they hear and the relations between these units.

But a much more interesting prospect is the type of ‘interactionist’ approach that does not impute such reality to language structure at all. That is the view that the raw data of spoken language must be clearly distinguished from the analysis which an observer (lay or specialist) might undertake of it. In other words, there is no implicit structure lurking there in speech, whether phonological or syntactic: structures are inferred by analysts and act as handy descriptive/analytical tools, but they’re not really there. It is a serious criticism of some schools of thought that they treat the analysts’ analysis as being in fact what language is composed of – as though analytical constructs such as noun, verb, IP, DP, etc, actually are somehow or somewhere embodied in utterances. It’s one thing to say that when linguists want to get a handle on what people produce/hear they need to identify units and categorise things – these units and categories are convenient as technical descriptions in order that specialists can spot patterns and talk to each other about them. It’s another thing to say that spoken language consists of these units and categories such that the linguist’s task is to discover them (rather than impose them).*

As Joseph et al (2001: 60) put it, “whereas for the psychologistic structuralist speech comes about through implementation of the speaker’s knowledge of a systematic linguistic structure, for Firth the systematic structure is a linguist’s fiction, resulting from the attempt to understand speech.”** Thus (for example) the nativist scours the child’s productions in order to establish which aspects of linguistic structure must have unfolded in their mind by that point – the more interesting varieties of interactionism make use of structure, on paper, in the analysis, only as a tool to understanding what the child understands.

If both sides in the field of language acquisition, the interactionist and the nativist, share the conceptualisation of the linguist’s task as being one of discovering linguistic structure that actually exists out there/in language, then the differences between the two approaches shrink rather dramatically. But when this conceptualisation is not shared, it makes the ‘interactionist’ approach much harder to evaluate on ‘nativist’ terms, for one thing, and more importantly it keeps the idea of “language structure” where it belongs, in the realm of open questions needing discussion. Linguistic descriptions are convenient (-to-the-linguist) if not indispensible ways of categorising bits of utterances, but they have no life of their own.

*Some books/articles talk about things like Ross’s “discovery” of his island constraints: it would be better to think of things like this as inventions, not discoveries.

** Note the F-word. Amazing chap, obviously, this Firth. I was mightily relieved and heartened to come across that section of Joseph (2001) shortly after tortuously writing an essay labouring to express this point in an essay many moons ago.

13 thoughts on “language acquisition upside down

  1. In other words, there is no implicit structure lurking there in speech, whether phonological or syntactic: structures are inferred by analysts and act as handy descriptive/analytical tools, but they’re not really there.

    That doesn’t seem right. What about the relationship between language, and God who reveals himself to us through Word (both spoken and incarnate)?


  2. Yes that does help — I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that a linguist such as yourself has already been around this particular tree a few times. Much food for thought there (and the post that one links to)

    From one of those comment trails,

    It’s not as if we can understand ‘And God said’

    That’s a marvelous point; there is so much brouhaha about how literal to take the word “day” in Gen 1, but what about the word “said”? This is different than the old question of the tree falling in the forest, as it seems we can say pretty surely that God’s creative speaking was not voiced like we usually think of words. I’m going to keep that in my holster for next time I find myself in an argument about creation days!

    I’m going to have to keep thinking about this prospect of the Trinity having communication without language (message without medium?), but it makes sense to me. If God did have his own divine “language”, what syllables would he use, and what could possibly make them any better than some other arbitrarily-chosen set? It reminds me of a kid I know from church who recently decided to invent his own language; he would invent new gibberish words as he needed them, and try to keep track of what gibberish words he had already arbitrarily created; the whole process would work out no differently if he chose this gibberish vs. that gibberish at any particular point.

    Another interesting snippet:

    speech acts are all the rage these days it seems – really i suppose God is the only one who can genuinely make something happen merely by the uttering, sic, of words, sic

    You should give a listen to Hoagies & Stogies: Baptismal Regeneration , where the Lutheran “bad guy” based his whole argument on the efficacy of speech-acts performed by duly-ordained (human) apostoloi (sent-out). At one point he gives a litany of common examples of human speech-acts that genuinely accomplish something: “You are under arrest” “I pronounce you man and wife”, … And of course, for his argument, he concludes the litany with “You are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”


  3. Well, I’m still thinking about it myself, really, but from what we know of the divine attributes and the relations between the persons of the Trinity, it doesn’t seem that language would be necessary. Each person is omniscient, each person knows the others fully, and God’s will and purposes are eternal.

    On speech acts – maybe I put that too strongly – human speakers do obviously achieve things (all the time) through uttering words, although I suppose if we’re talking about classic speech acts like “I pronounce you …” certain conditions need to be fulfilled before the utterance can achieve them (eg being an ordained minister).

    So an ordained minister at a baptism service does actually make a person baptised, so to speak, although I suppose it would also be in conjunction with carrying out the sacramental actions (the application of water). The point under dispute though presumably is whether the person on being baptised necessarily simultaneously undergoes an inward spiritual change, and unless you’re actually equating baptism and regeneration, speech act theory won’t really help to resolve that. I hereby regenerate you … ? Doesn’t work. Should’ve told him he was violating some Gricean maxims, that would have sorted him out.


  4. RubeRad,
    If a policeman was to say to me “You are under arrest” and I then ran away, would I actually be under arrest? I’m not sure that I would. Similarly, and I think Cath alludes to this, if a minister said “I baptise you…” and failed to sprinkle the water upon the candidate, would the candidate actually be baptised? I doubt it. So, from a totally non-academic perspective, the words themselves don’t seem to be accomplishing anything material. They have to be accompanied by certain acts. In the case of Christ performing miracles by his word, he didn’t need to do anything at all to make his word effectual. Then again, I’m not even sure he needed to speak at all.

    Apologies for intruding on what seems to be a fairly academic (by which I *don’t* mean ‘ultimately pointless!) discussion.


  5. If a policeman was to say to me “You are under arrest” and I then ran away, would I actually be under arrest?

    Would you have escaped arrest, or fled arrest? Maybe more accurate if the policeman would say “you are subject to arrest”. But the point is less “I have arrested you from physical motion” and more “you are now in the legal status called ‘under arrest'” which has certain implications which are actualized by the speech of the statement.

    I hereby regenerate you … ? Doesn’t work.

    Playing the Lutheran’s advocate here, the whole point is that, because of the Great Commission, and the keys of the kingdom, and the binding and loosing, etc., when the minister says “I baptize you…” (and yes, applies the water), it is not him speech-acting; he is wielding the speech-act that Christ has authorized him to wield, and by God’s power, it is so.


  6. Speech acts take on a huge amount more significance in the theological world, from what I gather, than their status within linguistics would lead you to expect. A theologian talking about speech acts is probably investing the theory with more seriousness and more explanatory power than it actually has. In my humble phonologist’s opinion.

    When the minister says “I baptise you,” he does make it so. The person is really and truly baptised, with all that that entails. The question is not to do with whether they’re truly baptised (where speech act theory is arguably useful) but what the entailments or implications or consequences of being baptised are (and here speech act theory is irrelevant).


  7. That’s a good point, and one that probably could have used making at the H&S.

    Another thing I thought of wrt this discussion; in the New Heavens & Earth, we will still be embodied (still having our selfsame bodies), thus I assume we will still have vocal cords and still use spoken language to worship — and communicate with each other? I assume also that the partial undoing of Babel at pentecost will be fully reversed in the consummation, so we will all be speaking one language. The nature of that language, of course, probably cannot be usefully speculated on.


    • Yes, the selfsame bodies, although glorified, and I for one can’t speculate on what a glorifed body is going to be like. Our bodies now are like seeds, says Paul, and our glorified bodies will be like the flower. And yes, we will be speaking one language, but v hard to imagine what it will be like.


  8. here speech act theory is irrelevant

    Or perhaps not? From your link above:

    Other attempts at speech acts might misfire because their addressee fails to respond with an appropriate uptake: I cannot bet you $100 on who will win the election unless you accept that bet. If you don’t accept that bet, then I have tried to bet but have not succeeded in betting.

    I think it makes a lot of sense to say that Faith is the required “uptake” to the speech-act of baptism, which triggers actual the inward washing of regeneration.


  9. Wellll, only if you think faith does trigger regeneration. I would say it’s actually regeneration that triggers faith.

    In any case, the uptake required at baptism is just to have the water applied to you.


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