For decades, controversy has swirled around the question of whether some kind of innate capacity is required for language to develop normally. Ostensibly, there has been progress over the years on the old ‘nature- nurture’ question. Only the most die-hard theorists would now publicly argue for anything other than some sort of interactionist position. Nonetheless, as Sabbagh & Gelman (S&G) note in their review of The emergence of language, there is little clarity about the nature of that interaction or about what constitutes an emergentist position on it. As good scientists, S&G propose to evaluate emergentism, despite its vagueness, by describing a ‘strong’ emergentist position as one that must include the following tenets: domain-general cognitive processes (‘buzzsaws’ as they call them) like attention and memory are sufficient to account for the elegance of language as well as the ease and speed of its acquisition by children; these domain- general processes do so without explicit rule-based knowledge representations; and the same processes account for all aspects of language. There is much to agree with in the review by S&G. They cite the importance of development and performance as pluses for emergentist views, but they also raise serious questions about the limitations of emergentist accounts: these often either leave unanalyzed crucial concepts like similarity or hide what look suspiciously like rule-governed knowledge representations. Despite their concerns, S&G are gracious in their conclusions; they seem cautiously optimistic about the enterprise of accounting for language development in an emergentist framework. Such optimism, however, seems appropriate only insofar as the framework is not taken in its strong form. S&G's arguments (made by others as well) about the vague and hidden aspects of some emergentist models give the lie to the claim that all aspects of language can be accounted for by the same domain-general processes. Those arguments also raise questions about whether domain-specific rule-based representations can be completely done away with.
Journal of Child Language