Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Daniel Weiskopf, Ph.D.


Language acquisition, Representational nativism, Usage-based linguistics, Emergentism, Interactivism, Connectionism


This project provides a detailed examination and critique of current philosophical, linguistic, and cognitive accounts of first language acquisition. In particular, I focus on the concept of "innate" and how it is embraced, marginally utilized, or abandoned altogether in efforts to describe the way that a child comes to be a competent user of a language. A central question that naturally falls out of this general inquiry is therefore what exactly is supposed to be "innate," according to various theories? Philosophically, the theory of innate ideas put forth to explain human learning has existed for centuries and hence, this thesis as it relates to language is discussed. The revival of nativism by linguists like Chomsky is thus a central theme of the first chapter.

Universal Grammar and the various arguments for it are closely scrutinized, and I close this chapter with what I take to be the commitments of linguistic nativism, how its proponents conceive of "innate," and several possible objections to the arguments they put forth. Just as the theory of innate ideas has had its contesters throughout the history of philosophy, so too have linguists and cognitive scientists rejected Universal Grammar and other forms of linguistic nativism. Thus, the second chapter presents several of these alternative explanations of language acquisition. Namely, I divide the chapter into three sections, Usage-Based Linguistics, Emergentism, and Sociolinguistic Acquisition, as it is my suggestion that most of the anti-UG attacks are levied from one of these three fields. In discussing the details of each, two distinctions become of particular concern: first, a large part of the differing conceptions of "innate" seem to hinge on what is meant by "learning" and "acquiring," and therefore second, a fine line between UBL and Emergentism can be drawn, a relationship that is otherwise conflated in the literature.

Because chapter two involves a brief account of the way in which connectionist simulations are often utilized to model or represent language acquisition, particularly from an Emergentist perspective, chapter three begins by examining this feature of Emergentism in more detail. Due to its explanatory power, ability to be effectively modeled, and the evidentiary support found in neuroscience, Emergentism would appear to be the most tenable position to maintain regarding language acquisition. This possibility seems further strengthened when we take into account the neuroscientific data often used to bolster anti-nativist claims. Nevertheless, reflecting on the overarching concern of the project, regarding what is really meant by "innate," it is shown that this attack on nativism might stand on shakier ground than was originally assumed. Finally, based on these considerations, a case is made for an intermediary position, a theory of "Minimally Innate Ideas."