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On Language: The Dual- and Single-Route Theories

On Language: The Dual- and Single-Route Theories

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Published by Voog
A paper examining the nativist and empiricist accounts of language acquisition in children.
A paper examining the nativist and empiricist accounts of language acquisition in children.

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Published by: Voog on Mar 18, 2009
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W. T. LeGard (2004) OU
On Language: The Dual- andSingle-Route Theories
According to Chomsky (1965a), humans are born with an innate knowledge of the principles of transformational grammar. Domain-specific structures allowchildren to identify and employ the complex grammatical rules of a language.Chomsky claims that the mental structure for language acquisition − what hetermed ‘Universal Grammar’ − is programmed to recognize the universal rulesthat underlie the specific language that a child is exposed to. Similarly, Pinker(2002) maintains that language develops without conscious exertion or formaltutoring. Other researchers have challenged this nativist view of languageacquisition. Indeed, the broadly nativist
dual-route theory of inflectionalmorphology has been disputed and a different approach proposed.Inflectional morphology pertains to the way that inflections are employed tomodify the form of a word to provide additional information about its definition.English verbs have both regular (stem + /ed/) and irregular (e.g. stand → stood)past-tense forms. Children’s learning of English plural inflections and the pasttense of verbs is characterized by a U-shaped pattern of development. Initially,children learn to form the past tense of high frequency irregular verbs and somehigh frequency regular verbs. As learning progresses and more verbs areacquired, children begin to over-regularize the past tense of verbs, which theyhad previously formed correctly (e.g. standed). One explanation for thisdevelopmental trend is that the brain’s past-tense production system possessestwo routes.Pinker and Prince (1988) proposed dual-route theory in which one route is rule-governed and enables the formation of past-tense regular verbs. A second routepertains to a memory system of irregular past-tense forms. The production of anirregular past-tense form is only possible once the appropriate past-tense formhas been learnt and memorized, and if it can be retrieved before the rule-governed route − operating in parallel − produces an incorrect regularization.Dual-route theory maintains that over-regularization errors occur when thememory system is insufficiently developed to prevent the rule-governed routefrom overriding it. With experience, memorization of infrequent inflections isconsolidated and errors are reduced. The inflection that occurs most (/ed/ inEnglish) is established as the default rule (Marcus et al., 1992).A recent challenge to this hypothesis is single-route theory (Rumelhart andMcClelland, 1987a) which proposes that regular and irregular inflections areproduced by a single system that amasses all the inflections in a language.
 These dual- and single-route explanations have traditionally been associated with nativist and empiricistaccounts of language development. Although dual- and single-route theories are not implicitly related to thesepositions, proponents of dual-route theory propose that the rule mechanism is innate while single-routetheorists dispute this view.
Accounting differently for over-regularization errors, single-route theory assertsthat memory resources become congested as numerous inflections are stored. This leads to ‘interference effects’, that is, similar words are confused and so, forexample, the irregular verb ‘gois confused with other regular verbs with asimilar phonological structure (e.g. mow, row, sew) and ‘goed’ is produced. Withexperience, the irregular verbs become more securely stored and are able toresist the interference effects of regular verbs. Both single- and dual-route theories, then, explain the U-shaped pattern.However, an examination of the different kinds of mistakes predicted by boththeories appears to support the single-route approach. Although dual-routetheory maintains that particular types of error should not take place, irregularinflections suffixed to regular verbs occur (although infrequently) in children’sspeech. Indeed, single-route theory predicts this type of error, asserting thatinterference effects influence children’s production of regular and irregularwords.Single-route theory seems to offer the better explanation of how childrengeneralize inflections to novel words (e.g. zat → zats). While dual-route theoryclaims this occurs because no entry in memory exists to prevent the applicationof the rule, single-route theory accounts for generalizations in terms of thesimilarity of the novel word to existing words in the language, (bat, cat, hat).When no similar words exist in the child’s memory, single-route theory predictsthat the child will produce a word based on a weighted similarity to all otherwords in their vocabulary. Dual-route theory predicts that the word will beinflected according to the default rule. Marchman’s (1997) study revealed thatirregular verbs with a similar phonology to regular verbs were more likely to have‘/ed/’ added incorrectly, than similar-sounding verbs that alter (predominantly) inthe same way in the past tense. These findings support single-route theory,which claims that interference effects cause these inflectional errors.Most nouns and verbs in English are regular and take a single ending. German,however, has multiple regular endings. Marcus et al. (1995) claim that thedefault rule in German causes over-regularization errors and is used for inflectingnovel words. Thus, if add ‘/s/’ is the default, it should feature in children’s over-regularization errors. A longitudinal study by Szagun (2001), however, revealedthat single-route theory is preferable for acquiring languages with more than oneregular inflection. The participants’ use and frequency of the different pluralinflections was consistent with the occurrence and frequency of those inflectionsin their parents’ speech. Errors in the use of plural formation occurred from theonset of the children’s speech. These findings suggest that − consistent with asingle-route account of inflectional morphology − children initially generalizefrom the different regularities of German inflection they are exposed to.While the above evidence appears to support single-route theory, differentpatterns of behaviour for past-tense word formations have been observed inchildren with developmental disorders. A study by Bellugi et al. (1990)demonstrated that, while children with Williams Syndrome were able to produceregular past-tense verbs, their production of irregular past-tense verbs provedmore difficult. Studies of children with specific language impairment (e.g. Gopnikand Crago, 1991) revealed contrary findings. This double dissociation betweenregular and irregular inflection suggests that impairment of one route affects itsperformance while the other route remains functional. These findings seem to
counter single-route theory. Certainly, researchers (e.g. Thomas et al., 2001)have discovered no difference in performance between regular and irregularpast-tense verb forms in children with Williams Syndrome. Moreover, single-routetheorists have simulated double disassociations between regular and irregularverbs in connectionist models. However, the implications of the findings of thepsychopathological approach cast doubt upon single-route theory.Connectionist models have been used to simulate many aspects of cognitivedevelopment. Plunkett and Juola (1999) demonstrated that specificallyprogrammed connectionist models produce a U-shaped pattern of development. The network also acquired plural inflections before past-tense inflections and thisis consistent with Brown’s (1973) study of children’s grammatical development.Rumelhart and McClelland’s (1987b) connectionist model behaved in a wayconsistent with a single-route approach. As the model’s vocabulary increased sodid competition for network resources. Consequently, the network producedover-regularization errors. Soon after, the irregular verbs resisted theinterference effects of regular verbs. This established that two separatemechanisms are not required to learn regular and irregular past tenses. Networksare relatively weak when compared to the human brain, which containsapproximately one hundred billion (10¹¹) neurons. However, networks are able toacquire thousands of plurals and regular and irregular verbs. A single system,then, which memorizes all the inflections in a language, is conceivable.Connectionist models produce testable predictions and occasionally predict novelresults. The use of distributed representation allows the networks to displaydeveloping behaviours that are not usually predictable. Thus, simulations canreplace empirical experiments and enable researchers to scrutinize a theory’sbehaviour. The connectionist approach demonstrates how a number of built-in procedurescan instigate the learning process. Connectionism presents the brain as adomain-general processor that progressively attains domain-specificcompetencies with experience of particular learning opportunities. It can beargued that connectionists’ findings refute the nativist, modular view of themind. Connectionist models, however, possess various limitations thatdemonstrate their limited account of the mechanisms of development. Networksproduce errors, which are not observed in children. Arguably, functions that haveto be programmed into the networks invalidate the results (e.g. backpropagation). Indeed, connectionist models are unable to account forgrammatical factors (e.g. auxiliary verbs) without the network having some built-in grammatical knowledge (Bishop, 1999).Prior to the vocabulary spurt, young children focus upon a small number of words(Harris, 2006). However, networks require a large number of input-outputpairings to operate efficiently. Moreover, it is uncertain whether a computermodel actually reflects the operation of a child’s brain. Bruner (1993) assertsthat children encounter and acquire language in familiar social contexts. Indeed,Harris et al. (1988) discovered that there exists a close relationship between achild’s use of first words and the mother’s use of those same words. Childreninteract with others who assist them. Connectionist models, however, exist in apre-programmed, artificial environment.Nativists claim that, via Universal Grammar, children recognize that languagescan be principally syntactic or morphological. This innate cognitive mechanismcontains a series of constraints on language processing. Through exposure to the

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