Deduction or construction. SCOTT ROBINSON discusses the pros and cons of generative and usage-based approaches to language learning

Understanding how children come to acquire language has been a great source of debate for many years.  From the nature or nurture debate to the much more detailed ideas on whether children are an active or passive part of language development, there is a lot to be said.  When it comes to language acquisition there are two main approaches, generativist and usage-based. According to the generativist theory, “all human children innately possess a universal grammar, abstract enough to structure any language of the world” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207).  There are two processes in this model – “acquiring all the words, idioms, and quirky constructions of the particular language being learned; and linking the particular language being learned to the abstract universal grammar” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207). As this is allegedly innate, grammar develops continually, which is different to that proposed by of the usage-based theorists. Tomasello, who is one of the key exponents of the usage-based theory, points out that in fact “children are not very productive with their early language, suggesting that they do not possess the abstract linguistic categories and schemas necessary to effortlessly generate infinite numbers of grammatical sentences” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207). These are the differences in the theories which are debated most.

Tomasello assumed a constructivist approach to language acquisition. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p 123) claim that according to constructivists, “language is an inventory of constructions of various sizes and various levels of abstraction, each of which serves some communicative or socio-pragmatic function”. Constructivism argues language is likely to be acquired through a development of the understanding of forms (syntactic categories such as nouns and verbs) through the function of meaning.  In more detail, the usage-based theory focuses “on the specific communicative events in which people learn and use language” (M. Tomasello, 2000, p.61). He argues that sufficient input is required for a child to acquire language and detracts away from the notion of innateness. This is highlighted in his response to Lidz et al, who argued that input for children does not generate sufficient information to support unaided learning and attempts to support the contribution of innateness. In his response to Lidz et al’s  (2003) study, he highlights that in a forced choice situation, eighteen month old children think the phrase ‘another one’ goes best with another object, near identical to the one they’ve just seen other than one that is a different colour (M. Tomasello, 2004, p.140). By highlighting this he is trying to prove this shows nothing of a child’s understanding of the nested structure of noun phrases or innate linguistic knowledge, and that only non-linguistic experiences are shown in the study (M. Tomasello, 2004, p.140).

The usage based approach can be summarised in two principles, the first being ‘meaning is use’ which “represents an approach to the functional or semantic dimension of linguistic communication” (M. Tomasello, 2008, p.69). This idea stems from philosophers of language who wanted to combat the idea that meanings are things in themselves and focus on how people use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends. The second is ‘structure emerges from use’ which “represents an approach to the structural or grammatical dimension of linguistic communication” (Tomasello,2008, p.69).  The theory places emphasis on pre-linguistic communication. It is important to start by exploring the communicative function in the usage based view. Human infants communicate in rather sophisticated ways prior to acquiring any linguistic conventions: e.g. nearly all infants communicate by pointing before they acquire productive language. For Tomasello this suggests “that all human pointing and other gestures may already embody forms of social cognition and communicative motivation that are unique to the species, and that are necessary as a first step on the way to linguistic conventions both phylogenetically and ontogenetically” (M. Tomasello,2008, p.70). This stands opposed to the generativist approach, which because they believe it is innate, “universal grammar does not develop ontogenetically but is the same throughout the life span…” (M. Tomasello, 2002, p.207).

SCOTT ROBINSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Tomasello, M., Abbot-Smith, K., (2002) A tale of two theories: response to Fisher’, Cognition 83, pp.207 – 214.

Tomasello, M. (2004) ‘Syntax or semantics? Response to Lidz et al.’, Cognition 93, pp.139-140.

Tomasello, M. (2000) ‘First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition’, Cognitive Linguistics 11-1/2, pp.61-62.

Tomasello, M. (2008) ‘The Usage-based theory of language acquisition’. In Bavin, E, (Ed.) The Cambridge handbook of child language (2008), pp.69-88.


One thought on “Deduction or construction. SCOTT ROBINSON discusses the pros and cons of generative and usage-based approaches to language learning

  1. Richard Stott says:

    Hello Scott,
    Thank you for an excellent summary of some of the core pros and cons to ‘generative’ and ‘usage-based’ learning approaches to language acquisition. Just to flag up, you cited from Tomasello’s (2000) article that usage-based theory focuses “on the specific communicative events in which people learn and use language”. Interestingly, I think it is beneficial to cite an empirical example of how children can acquire language through desire and experience. Stemmer (2014, pp. 102-103) cited how children, through witnessing a holding event, were able to understand the meaning of the verb “holds” in a simple SVO sentence construction. Through already understanding the subject “Daddy” and object “Mary”, they were able to use this semantic capacity to construct multiple sentences in the form of “x holds y” acquiring knowledge of SVO construction (Stemmer, 2014, pp. 102-103). This is a clear, empirical example of how infants observing a “specific communicative event” in context, relationally acquired basic syntactic construction.
    Do you think labelling generative studies as merely theoretical, ‘armchair’ linguistics is fair considering such evidence? Or do you think the scope of grammatical acquisition is so infinite and complex, we should find credibility in the proposed cognitive mechanisms which allegedly facilitate and guide the learning of English grammar? It would be interesting to know where you sit in this heated debate!

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