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.