Michael Tomasello
Constructing a Language
A Usage-Based Theory of Language Aquisition
Harvard 2003



.....unlike most other animal species, human beings cannot be born with any specific set of communicative behaviors. Young children must learn during their individual ontogenies the set of linguistic conventions used by those around them, which for any given language consists of tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of individual words, expressions, and constructions.

Two sets of such skills are of particular importance for language acquisition.
The first set comprises various skills of intention-reading (theory of mind, broadly conceived). These skills first emerge in human ontogeny at around 9-12 months of age (Tomasello, 1995a) and include such things as:
- the ability to share attention with other persons to objects and events of mutual interest (Bakeman and Adamson, 1984);
- the ability to follow the attention and gesturing of other persons to distal objects and events outside the immediate interaction (Corkum and Moore, 1995);
- the ability to actively direct the attention of others to distal objects by pointing, showing, and using of other nonlinguistic gestures (Bates,1979);
- the ability to culturally (imitatively) learn the intentional actions of others, including their communicative acts underlain by communicative intentions (Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner, 1993; Tomasello,1998b).

The other main set of skills is those involved in various kinds of pattern-finding - categorization, broadly defined. These skills also begin to emerge early in human development (some prelinguistically) and include such things as:

- the ability to form perceptual and conceptual categories of "similar" objects and events (e.g., Rakison and Oakes, in press);

- the ability to form sensory-motor schemas from recurrent patterns of perception and action (e.g., Piaget, 1952; Schneider, 1999; Conway and Christiansen, 2001);

- the ability to perform statistically based distributional analyses on various kinds of perceptual and behavioral sequences (e.g., Saffran, Aslin, and Newport, 1996; Marcus et al., 1999; Gomez and Gerken, 1999; Ramus et al., 2000);

- the ability to create analogies (structure mappings) across two or more complex wholes, based on the similar functional roles of some elements in these different wholes (Gentner and Markman, 1997).

...new ways of looking at the nature of language itself

The second modern development that undermines the You Can't Get There From Here argument is new ways of looking at the nature of language itself.

Chomskian generative grammar is a "formal" theory, meaning that it is based on the supposition that natural languages are like formal languages. Natural languages are thus characterized in terms of
(1) a unified set of abstract algebraic rules that are both meaningless themselves and insensitive to the meanings of the elements they algorithmically com­bine, and
(2) a lexicon containing meaningful linguistic elements that serve as variables in the rules. Principles governing the way the underlying algebra works constitute a universal grammar, the "core" of linguistic competence. The linguistic "periphery" involves such things as the lexicon, the conceptual system, irregular constructions and idioms, and pragmatics.
This dichotomy between core and periphery leads to the so-called dual process approach to language acquisition (also called the words and rules approach by Pinker, 1999), namely, that whereas children acquire elements of the linguistic periphery using "normal" learning processes, the linguistic core, universal grammar, cannot be so learned; it is an innate property of the human mind.

Usage-based theories hold that the essence of language is its symbolic dimension, with grammar being derivative. The ability to communicate with conspecifics symbolically (conventionally, intersubjectively) is a species-specific biological adaptation.
...in contrast to generative grammar and other formal approaches, in usage-based approaches the grammatical dimension of language is a product of a set of historical and ontogenetic processes referred to collectively as grammaticalizution.

The implications of this new view of language for theories of language acquisition are truly revolutionary. If there is no clean break between the more rule-based and the more idiosyncratic items and structures of a language, then all constructions may be acquired with the same basic set of acquisitional processes - namely, those falling under the general headings of intention-reading and pattern-finding.

...the adult endpoint of language acquisition comprises nothing other than a structured inventory of linguistic constructions, a much closer and more child-friendly target than previously believed. These two new advances in developmental psychology and usage-based linguistics thus encourage us to pursue the possibility that we might be able to describe and explain child language acquisition without recourse to any hypothesized universal grammar.

pg 8 Origins of Language

human linguistic communication is symbolic.

Linguistic symbols are social conventions by means of which one individual attempts to share attention with another individual by directing the other's attentional or mental state to something in the outside world. Other animal species do not communicate with one another using linguistic symbols, most likely because they do not understand that conspecifics have attentional or mental states that they could attempt to direct or share (Tomasello, 1998b). To oversimplify, animal signals are aimed at the behavior and motivational states of others, whereas human symbols are aimed at the attentional and mental states of others. It is this mental dimension that gives linguistic symbols their unparalleled communicative power, enabling them to be used to refer to and to predicate all kinds of diverse perspectives on objects, events, and situations in the world.