W. T.

LeGard (2004) OU

On Language: The DualSingle-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 rulegoverned 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 rulegoverned 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 words. 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 overregularization 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 behaviour. 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 builtin 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 deactivated. 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 combinations. 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 fashion. 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 fashion. 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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Oates, J. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2006) Cognitive and Language Development in Children, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Pinker, S. and Prince, A. (1988) cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.182. Pinker, S. (1989) cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.194. Pinker, S. (2000) The Language Instinct, London, Penguin. Plunkett, K. and Juola, P. (1999) cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.184. Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. ‘The Development of Children’s Understanding of Grammar’, in Oates, J. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2006) Cognitive and Language Development in Children, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Rumelhart, D. and McClelland, J. (1987a) cited in cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.183. Rumelhart, D. and McClelland, J. (1987b) cited in cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.184. Snow, C. E. (1972) cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.196. Szagun, G. (2001) cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) pp.188-189. Thomas, M. S. C., Grant, L., Barham, Z. et al. (2001) cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.190. Tomasello, M. (2000) cited in Plunkett, K. and Wood, C. (2006) p.194.

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