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An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences

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Language learning from the perspective of nonlinear dynamic systems

Annette Hohenberger1 / Annemarie Peltzer-Karpf2

1Middle East Technical University

2University of Graz

Informatics Institute, Middle East Technical University, İnönü Bulvari, 06531 Ankara, Turkey. E-mail:

Citation Information: Linguistics. Volume 47, Issue 2, Pages 481–511, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/LING.2009.017, March 2009

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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 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.

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