E is for Emergence

23 07 2017

path.JPG“Out of the slimy mud of words … there spring[s] the perfect order of speech” (T.S. Eliot).

Eliot’s use of the verb ‘spring’ suggests that language emerges instantly and fully-formed, like a rabbit out of a hat. Historical linguists, sociolinguists and researchers into language acquisition (both first and second) suggest that the processes of language evolution and development are slower – and messier. To capture this messy, evolving quality, many scholars enlist the term emergence.

In what sense (or senses), then, does language emerge? There are at least three dimensions along which language, and specifically grammar, can be said to be emergent: over historical time; in the course of an individual’s lifetime; and in the moment-to-moment interactions in the language classroom.

Languages emerge over time. Pidgins, for example, emerge out of the contact between people with mutually unintelligible mother tongues. Creoles emerge when these pidgins are acquired as a first language by children in pidgin-speaking communities. English itself is the product of creolizing processes, as speakers of different local dialects came into contact with each other and with successive waves of invaders.  There are some that argue that ELF – English as a lingua franca – is yet another instance of an emergent variety.

Because, of course, English continues to evolve. The emergence of the future marker ‘going to’ is a case in point: in Shakespeare’s day, if you were to ‘going to meet someone’ you were literally moving in the direction of the projected meeting place. Over the course of a century or so, ‘going to’ became a metaphorical way of expressing a future intention. By the twentieth century it had further metamorphosed into the contracted form ‘gonna’. Such changes do not happen overnight nor are they ordained by some higher authority or by some genetic disposition. Arguably, everything we call grammar has emerged through similar processes, whereby lexical words become ‘grammaticalized’ to perform certain needed functions, and then, through repeated use, become established in a speech community. According to this view, ‘grammar is seen as … the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163).

Language emerges, too, in the course of an individual’s lifetime, primarily their infancy, as argued by proponents of usage-based theories of language acquisition – those theories that propose that linguistic competence is the product of an individual’s innumerable experiences of language in use.  As Nick Ellis (1998, p. 657) puts it:

Emergentists believe that simple 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, suffice to drive the emergence of complex language representations.

path 01.JPGThese ‘rule abstraction’ processes have been modelled using connectionist networks, i.e. computerized simulations of the way neural pathways are sensitive to frequency information and are strengthened accordingly, to the point that they display rule-like learning behaviours – even when they have no prior grammatical knowledge (Ellis et al. 2016).

In other words, the system continuously upgrades itself using general  (rather than language-specific) learning faculties, a view that challenges ‘innatist’ theories of language acquisition, as argued by – among others – Steven Pinker in The language instinct (1994).

From a complex systems perspective, the emergent nature of language learning is consistent with the view that, as John Holland (1998, p. 3) puts it: ‘a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity,’ a capacity that is ‘compounded when the elements of the system include some capacity, however elementary, for adaptation or learning’ (p. 5). While humans have this capacity, they are also constrained in terms of how information (in the form of language) can be processed in real time, and these constraints explain why languages share common features (so-called language universals) which, as Christiansen and Chater (2016) argue, are simply tendencies, ‘rather than the rigid categories of [Universal Grammar]’ (p.87).

Finally, language emerges in second language learning situations, especially when learners are engaged in communicative interaction. The learner talks; others respond. It is the scaffolding and recasting, along with the subsequent review, of these learner-initiated episodes that drives acquisition, argue proponents of task-based instruction, with which Dogme ELT is, of course, aligned. ‘In other words, the emphasis shifts from the traditional interventionist, proactive, modelling behaviour of synthetic approaches to a more reactive mode for teachers – students lead, the teacher follows’ (Long, 2015, p. 70). Or, as Michael Breen (1985) so memorably put it: ‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process.’

A recent book that attempts to unify the different dimensions of emergence – the historical, the biographical and the moment-by-moment – enlists a felicitous metaphor:path 02

 ‘The quasi-regular structure of language arises in rather the same way that a partially regular pattern of tracks comes to be laid down through a forest, through the overlaid traces of endless animals finding the path of local least resistance; and where each language processing episode tends to facilitate future, similar, processing episodes, just as an animal’s choice of a path facilitates the use of that path for animals that follow’ (Christiansen & Chater, 2016, p. 132.)

Is teaching, then, simply a matter of guiding the learners to find the tracks laid down by their predecessors?


Breen, M. (1985). The social context for language learning – a neglected situation? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016) Creating language: integrating evolution, acquisition and processing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Ellis, N. (1998) Emergentism, connectionism and language learning. Language Learning, 48/4.

Ellis, N., Römer, U. & O’Donell, M.B. (2016) Usage-based approaches to language acquisition and processing: Cognitive and corpus investigations of construction grammar. Oxford: Wiley.

Holland, J. H. (1998) Emergence: From chaos to order. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’ in M. Tomasello, (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Long, M. (2014) Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

G is for Grammar(s)

5 04 2015

Fries grammarThere is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to describe a language. Hence, more than one type of grammar.

It all depends on your point of view. Take this sentence, for example:


Structuralist grammars foreground the way that the basic structure of this sentence (NP + verb to be + V-ed) provides the template for any number of similar sentences, such as This window is closed or Your days are numbered, but not Doorman will return shortly or Your number is up. Grammar, viewed thus, is a system of building blocks. In the words of a leading structuralist, ‘All the structural signals in English are strictly formal matters that can be described in physical terms’ (Fries, 1952: 56). Grammar is matter.

Grammar-as-matter is what a bog-standard computer program might be able to unpack, simply by skimming the surface of a text. The exclusive focus on the formal features of our model sentence (THIS DOOR IS ALARMED), however, might blind the computer to its inherent ambiguity, an ambiguity that has been playfully exploited by graffiti writers, e.g. THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘What startled it?’ or THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘But the window is not bothered’.

chomsky grammarExplaining how one sentence might have two quite different meanings impelled linguists like Chomsky to drill down beneath the surface level of sentences and expose their ‘deep structure’. Thus, the deep structure of the passive THIS DOOR IS ALARMED and its active equivalent SOMEONE ALARMED THIS DOOR is essentially the same.

But Chomsky’s project is more than simply the description of patterns, deep or otherwise. He wants to explain how the rules that generate these patterns are derived from innate and universal cognitive structures. His grammar, therefore, is less an account of linguistic behaviour than a theory of mind. As Chomsky himself put it (1972: 100), ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.’ Grammar is mind.

But, like the structuralist account, Chomsky’s reduction of grammar to a set of mathematical rules tells us nothing about the meaning of our sentence THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. Nor does it explain how it functions in context – how it has the force of a warning, for example (Don’t open this door!). Nor how its elements map on to some objective reality, e.g. how this in THIS DOOR ‘points’ to a specific door. A functionalist grammar, on the other hand, tries to relate the linguistic forms to specific communicative purposes and their contexts, and, more ambitiously, to explain how these purposes and contexts actually determine the way the grammar has evolved. Grammar is not simply a reflection of thought, but is ‘motivated’ by its social and cultural functions. Or, as a leading functionalist grammarian, Michael Halliday, puts it, ‘language is as it is because of what it has to do’ (1978: 19). Grammar is function.

Halliday grammarA not dissimilar, cognitive, view of grammar starts from the premise that, as one scholar puts it, ‘language is rooted in human experience of the physical world’ (Lee 2001: 48). That is to say, grammar is the linguistic realization of the way we physically experience and perceive the world. Thus, the sentence Doorman will return shortly does not mean that the doorman will, literally, be short when he returns. Rather that, because we tend to construe time in terms of physical distance, it makes sense, when we talk about time, to use spatial words like short and long (and back and over). Likewise, our use of grammatical tense, aspect, modality, countability, and so on, all originate in our lived experience. Grammar is perception.

Finally, an emergent view of grammar is one that has, in part, been fuelled by developments in corpus linguistics. Corpora demonstrate that language is both formulaic and subject to constant variation. This tension between stasis and flux means that, over time, certain strings of words (called constructions) become fixed and assume a grammatical, i.e. non-literal, function: they become grammaticised. The English future form going to is a case in point: a verb string that started life meaning the same as walking to, but became a metaphor for futurity, and was eventually reduced, informally, to gonna. According to the emergent view, grammar is ‘the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163). Grammar is routine.

Matter, mind, function, perception, routine: which of these multiple ways of looking at grammar (and this by no means exhausts the number of grammars that have been theorized) best serves the needs of language learners and their teachers? I’ll leave that for you to ponder on.


cognitive grammarReferences

Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent grammar’ in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lee, D. (2001) Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(A version of this post first appeared on the Cambridge English Teaching forum)