Language learning from the perspective of nonlinear dynamic systems

Hohenberger A., Peltzer-Karpf A.

LINGUISTICS, vol.47, no.2, pp.481-511, 2009 (SSCI) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Review
  • Volume: 47 Issue: 2
  • Publication Date: 2009
  • Doi Number: 10.1515/ling.2009.017
  • Journal Name: LINGUISTICS
  • Journal Indexes: Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), Scopus
  • Page Numbers: pp.481-511
  • Middle East Technical University Affiliated: Yes


This article outlines a nonlinear dynamic systems approach to language learning on the basis of developmental cognitive neuroscience. Language learning, on this view, is a process of experience-dependent shaping and selection of broadly defined domain-general and domain-specific genetic predispositions. The central concept of development is (neuro) cognitive,e growth in terms of self-organization. Linguistic structure-building is synergetic and emergent insofar as the acquisition of a critical mass of elements on a local level (e.g., words) results in the emergence of novel qualities and units on a macroscopic level (e.g., syntax). We argue that language development does not take a linear path but comes in phases of intermittent turbulence, fluctuation, and stability, along a "chaotic itinerary". We review qualitative, quantitative and computational applications of this concept in the lexical, morphological, and syntactic domain. We, identify as the most significant property of the dynamic approach the temporal nature of language learning. As a medium-term forecast we anticipate a further diversification of the dynamic approach, an increase in more formal approaches, and a stronger interest in issues of embodiment and embeddedness.