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W. T.

LeGard (2004) OU

On Language: The Dual- and

Single-Route Theories

According to Chomsky (1965a), humans are born with an innate knowledge of

the principles of transformational grammar. Domain-specific structures allow
children to identify and employ the complex grammatical rules of a language.
Chomsky claims that the mental structure for language acquisition − what he
termed ‘Universal Grammar’ − is programmed to recognize the universal rules
that underlie the specific language that a child is exposed to. Similarly, Pinker
(2002) maintains that language develops without conscious exertion or formal
tutoring. Other researchers have challenged this nativist view of language
acquisition. Indeed, the broadly nativist* dual-route theory of inflectional
morphology has been disputed and a different approach proposed.

Inflectional morphology pertains to the way that inflections are employed to

modify 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 past
tense 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 some
high frequency regular verbs. As learning progresses and more verbs are
acquired, children begin to over-regularize the past tense of verbs, which they
had previously formed correctly (e.g. standed). One explanation for this
developmental trend is that the brain’s past-tense production system possesses
two 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 route
pertains to a memory system of irregular past-tense forms. The production of an
irregular past-tense form is only possible once the appropriate past-tense form
has 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 the
memory system is insufficiently developed to prevent the rule-governed route
from overriding it. With experience, memorization of infrequent inflections is
consolidated and errors are reduced. The inflection that occurs most (/ed/ in
English) is established as the default rule (Marcus et al., 1992).

A recent challenge to this hypothesis is single-route theory (Rumelhart and

McClelland, 1987a) which proposes that regular and irregular inflections are
produced 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 empiricist
accounts of language development. Although dual- and single-route theories are not implicitly related to these
positions, proponents of dual-route theory propose that the rule mechanism is innate while single-route
theorists dispute this view.
Accounting differently for over-regularization errors, single-route theory asserts
that memory resources become congested as numerous inflections are stored.
This leads to ‘interference effects’, that is, similar words are confused and so, for
example, the irregular verb ‘go’ is confused with other regular verbs with a
similar phonological structure (e.g. mow, row, sew) and ‘goed’ is produced. With
experience, the irregular verbs become more securely stored and are able to
resist 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 both
theories appears to support the single-route approach. Although dual-route
theory maintains that particular types of error should not take place, irregular
inflections suffixed to regular verbs occur (although infrequently) in children’s
speech. Indeed, single-route theory predicts this type of error, asserting that
interference effects influence children’s production of regular and irregular

Single-route theory seems to offer the better explanation of how children

generalize inflections to novel words (e.g. zat → zats). While dual-route theory
claims this occurs because no entry in memory exists to prevent the application
of the rule, single-route theory accounts for generalizations in terms of the
similarity 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 predicts
that the child will produce a word based on a weighted similarity to all other
words in their vocabulary. Dual-route theory predicts that the word will be
inflected according to the default rule. Marchman’s (1997) study revealed that
irregular verbs with a similar phonology to regular verbs were more likely to have
‘/ed/’ added incorrectly, than similar-sounding verbs that alter (predominantly) in
the 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 the
default rule in German causes over-regularization errors and is used for inflecting
novel words. Thus, if add ‘/s/’ is the default, it should feature in children’s over-
regularization errors. A longitudinal study by Szagun (2001), however, revealed
that single-route theory is preferable for acquiring languages with more than one
regular inflection. The participants’ use and frequency of the different plural
inflections was consistent with the occurrence and frequency of those inflections
in their parents’ speech. Errors in the use of plural formation occurred from the
onset of the children’s speech. These findings suggest that − consistent with a
single-route account of inflectional morphology − children initially generalize
from the different regularities of German inflection they are exposed to.

While the above evidence appears to support single-route theory, different

patterns of behaviour for past-tense word formations have been observed in
children with developmental disorders. A study by Bellugi et al. (1990)
demonstrated that, while children with Williams Syndrome were able to produce
regular past-tense verbs, their production of irregular past-tense verbs proved
more difficult. Studies of children with specific language impairment (e.g. Gopnik
and Crago, 1991) revealed contrary findings. This double dissociation between
regular and irregular inflection suggests that impairment of one route affects its
performance 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 irregular
past-tense verb forms in children with Williams Syndrome. Moreover, single-route
theorists have simulated double disassociations between regular and irregular
verbs in connectionist models. However, the implications of the findings of the
psychopathological approach cast doubt upon single-route theory.

Connectionist models have been used to simulate many aspects of cognitive

development. Plunkett and Juola (1999) demonstrated that specifically
programmed connectionist models produce a U-shaped pattern of development.
The network also acquired plural inflections before past-tense inflections and this
is consistent with Brown’s (1973) study of children’s grammatical development.
Rumelhart and McClelland’s (1987b) connectionist model behaved in a way
consistent with a single-route approach. As the model’s vocabulary increased so
did competition for network resources. Consequently, the network produced
over-regularization errors. Soon after, the irregular verbs resisted the
interference effects of regular verbs. This established that two separate
mechanisms are not required to learn regular and irregular past tenses. Networks
are relatively weak when compared to the human brain, which contains
approximately one hundred billion (10¹¹) neurons. However, networks are able to
acquire 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 novel

results. The use of distributed representation allows the networks to display
developing behaviours that are not usually predictable. Thus, simulations can
replace empirical experiments and enable researchers to scrutinize a theory’s

The connectionist approach demonstrates how a number of built-in procedures

can instigate the learning process. Connectionism presents the brain as a
domain-general processor that progressively attains domain-specific
competencies with experience of particular learning opportunities. It can be
argued that connectionists’ findings refute the nativist, modular view of the
mind. Connectionist models, however, possess various limitations that
demonstrate their limited account of the mechanisms of development. Networks
produce errors, which are not observed in children. Arguably, functions that have
to be programmed into the networks invalidate the results (e.g. back
propagation). Indeed, connectionist models are unable to account for
grammatical 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-output
pairings to operate efficiently. Moreover, it is uncertain whether a computer
model actually reflects the operation of a child’s brain. Bruner (1993) asserts
that children encounter and acquire language in familiar social contexts. Indeed,
Harris et al. (1988) discovered that there exists a close relationship between a
child’s use of first words and the mother’s use of those same words. Children
interact with others who assist them. Connectionist models, however, exist in a
pre-programmed, artificial environment.

Nativists claim that, via Universal Grammar, children recognize that languages
can be principally syntactic or morphological. This innate cognitive mechanism
contains a series of constraints on language processing. Through exposure to the
linguistic environment, constraints that relate to particular languages (e.g. those
that exploit syntactic cues) are activated and constraints that do not apply are

The empiricist account proposes that, based upon experience of language,

children infer the significance of morphology and syntax. This explanation is not
completely convincing, however. That children are required to memorize the
sequence of words or recognize the inflections seems incredibly cognitively
challenging. Moreover, they must then understand how these are associated to
the actions described.

Children also over-generalize dative alternations. Pinker (1989) claims that

children possess knowledge pertaining to the verbs that allow dative
alternations. He suggests that children’s range of grammatical rules link the
verb’s meaning to the associated grammar. Over-generalization of dative
alternations occurs because of inaccurate knowledge pertaining to word
meaning. As comprehension of word definition develops, the differences between
verbs are improved and the meaning structures activate a different set of rules in
Universal Grammar which prevents inappropriate dative alternations. It is merely
semantics, therefore, which children mistake.

Empiricist approaches have contested this view of grammatical development.

Tomasello (2000) proposes a distributional approach to syntax development. He
suggests that children construct knowledge of grammar in a piecemeal fashion.
Early word production is the result of a distributional analysis of the linguistic
input. Thus, children acquire syntactic constructions the same way as they
acquire words; they analyse speakers’ intentions and locate patterns within the
language. Just as children gradually construct their vocabulary, so they assemble
a range of syntactic constructions. They may then adapt these as prototypes for
new speech (cf. Braine, 1963).

A distributional approach proposes a different account of why children abandon

over-generalization errors. Creativity with language derives from separate
‘pockets of knowledge’. These broaden and influence each other then become
more integrated, leading to a reduction in errors. The early mistakes may have
been caused by the inappropriate extension of a pocket of grammatical
knowledge or attempted conflict resolution between pockets of grammatical
knowledge. Thus, errors may simply be incorrect suppositions regarding word

Elman’s (1993) neural network was able to calculate the correct sequence of
categories in a sentence. At a later stage, the network improved learning when
initially exposed to simple grammatical sequences. Indeed, child-directed speech
(Snow, 1972) assists babies in making sense of the complex speech stream,
which bears out the notion that syntactic development proceeds in a piecemeal

It has been established, then, that the recent challenges to the nativist approach
present a more credible account of language development. Single-route theory
predicts particular types of inflectional errors that dual-route theory cannot
account for. Single-route theory offers a more convincing explanation of how
children generalize inflections to novel words, and proves more advantageous for
learning languages with more than one regular inflection. The
psychopathological evidence, however, is ambiguous. Neural networks can
produce a U-shaped pattern of development. However, they possess several
limitations. While it is cognitively challenging to work out the significance of
syntax and morphology from the linguistic environment, child-directed speech
seems to support the notion that development of syntax occurs in a piecemeal

Although nativist accounts have been challenged, it seems that innate abilities
and social experience operate together to promote language development.
Indeed, little progress will be achieved if psychologists accept either extreme
empiricism or pure nativism (Bruner, 1983, p.132).


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