Grown-up grammars and creative constructions. RACHEL BREEDON explores modern theories of child language acquisition

Whilst helping children work their way through the early stages of language, we may not recognise the effort that little ones put in to making those wonderful half-formed sentences. They make it look easy, but whilst they’re babbling away, most of us are unaware of the controversy surrounding this verbal miracle. How exactly do these tiny humans piece together and learn a language so fast and efficiently?

It is apparent that the ability to learn language is innate for humans specifically. Without delving too deeply into the realm of animal linguistics, one characteristic that separates human language from animal languages is the ability to make brand new, novel utterances. To do this though, we need some sort of grammar to be able to combine words and express features such as tense (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 103). This is where theories of language acquisition generally divide into one of two approaches; generative or constructivist, each with their own ideas of what the nature of this grammar is and where it comes from.

According to generative grammar theory, all children have an innate universal grammar. They believe the capacity to learn language is ‘hardwired’ into our brains in what Chomsky calls a language acquisition device (LAD), explaining our instinct for learning language. Generativists also hold the continuity assumption (Pinker, 1984), which suggests that universal grammar is the same throughout people’s life-span, assuming young children have the syntactic competence of adults.  Acquiring language according to the generativist view can be simplified into two processes; learning the words and constructions of the language, then linking the learned language to the abstract universal grammar (Tomasello, 2002, p. 207). Taking an example from Ambridge & Lieven (2011, p. 123), to form the sentence ‘John kicked Bill’ a speaker would retrieve the verb ‘kick’ from their lexicon or mental dictionary and see that it needs a kicker (subject) and a kickee (object). They’d then insert ‘John’ and ‘Bill’ in their subject and object positions and voilà! Sentence formed according to generativists.

However, this theory relying on selection struggles to account for the formation of certain sentence types. For example, “he sneezed the napkin off the table” would mean you would have to have a caused-motion meaning in your mental dictionary for the verb ‘sneezed’, which most of us have only encountered in intransitive sentences with no object, such as ‘he sneezed’ (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p.125). We don’t often encounter someone sneezing something to a place, so how would a child work out what that means?

This is where the constructivist approach emerges. A construction according to Goldberg (1995, p. 4) is “a form-meaning pair such that some aspect of the form or some aspect of the function is not strictly predictable from the construction’s component parts”. In simpler terms, the construction or word pattern itself adds meaning. For example, in an English transitive construction such as the kicking example from before, a form (NOUN1 VERB NOUN2) is associated with a function (A acts upon B, causing B to be affected in some way) (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 124). From the components ‘kicked’, ‘Bill’ and ‘John’ alone it isn’t possible to tell who was the kicker and kickee, but when inserted into the construction the meaning emerges.

Once a child notices that certain forms are associated with particular functions, they are motivated to learn that construction, especially when talking about their own actions. SUBJECT VERB OBJECT transitive constructions can be learned bit by bit, as the first step is to learn simple phrases such as ‘I’m hitting it’ and ‘I’m eating it’ directly from adult input (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 125). From these, children form an I’m ACTIONing it schema into which they can insert any action they learn the lexical item for. These are item-based constructions and are easily learned from the input of others, relating to simple functions that the child understands. Tomasello found that most of children’s early linguistic competence is item-based and develops in a piecemeal fashion. He provides evidence to contrast the generativist continuity assumption, suggesting there is virtually no evidence of an innate, system-wide adult-like grammar in children and proposing his own usage-based theory of language acquisition (Tomasello, 2000, p. 209).

However, even that study received criticism (Fischer, 2002), and so the dispute continues. It seems obvious that item-based schemas such as ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ could generate children’s early sentences. The challenging part is deciding whether they do, or whether we’re born with these abstract rules and just have to match our experiences up with them. Either way, innate or acquired, baby humans certainly have a knack for grammar.

RACHEL BREEDON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child language acquisition: Contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer, C. (2002). The role of abstract syntactic knowledge in language acquisition: a reply to Tomasello (2000). Cognition, 82, pp. 259-278.

Goldberg, A. E. (1995). Constructions: A construction grammar approach to argument structure. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Pinker, S. (1984). Language learnability and language development. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Tomasello, M. (2000). Do young children have adult syntactic competence? Cognition, 74, pp. 209-253.



One thought on “Grown-up grammars and creative constructions. RACHEL BREEDON explores modern theories of child language acquisition

  1. Christina Sommerville says:

    The generative vs constructivist debate is still a widely disputed topic and I found your blog a very insightful read on the matter. One thing which you have brought to light is something that surely everyone can agree on; the fact that infants have this remarkable knack of grammar, whether it be innate or acquired, is fascinating. After considering both sides of your argument, I found your paragraph on Tomasello’s usage-based theory more convincing in my opinion, as it suggests that adult input contributes to language acquisition in addition to the child’s ability to construct grammar rules rather than Chomsky’s theory of an innate LAD. Your ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ example really puts his theory into perspective, as it outlines how children can retain construction patterns in relation to their experiences and the input from others, which makes the most sense to me out of the two main theories you presented. Do you have a preference to a particular theory? Also, I would be interested to know what your views are on Halliday’s functions and his theory of semiotic processes in relation to Tomasello’s and Chomsky’s theories, as his theory is also one of the main counter-arguments to the Chomskian approach.

    Overall, a very insightful read!

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