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An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences

Editor-in-Chief: van der Auwera, Johan

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Generative approaches to language learning

Sonja Eisenbeiß1

1University of Essex

Department of Linguistics, University of Essex, Colchester CO4 3SQ, United Kingdom. E-mail:

Citation Information: Linguistics. Volume 47, Issue 2, Pages 273–310, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/LING.2009.011, March 2009

Publication History

Published Online:


All proponents of generative approaches to language learning argue that the syntactic knowledge which language learners acquire is underdetermined by the input. Therefore, they assume an innate language acquisition device which constrains the hypothesis space of children when they acquire their native language. However, it is still a matter of debate how general or domain-specific this acquisition mechanism is and whether it is fully available from the onset of language acquisition. This article provides an overview of the different answers that have been provided for these questions within generative linguistics. Moreover, it shows how the generative concept of “learning” has been applied to the acquisition of syntax, morphology, phonology and vocabulary, language processing, L2-acquisition, nontypical language development, creoles and language change. Finally, current developments, merits and problems of the generative approach to learning are discussed. The focus of this discussion will be on efforts to reduce assumptions about domain-specific innate predispositions for language learning.

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