Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Morphosyntactic Learning: A Neurobehavioral Perspective

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Morphosyntactic Learning: A Neurobehavioral Perspective

Article excerpt


In his last book, Ernst Moerk laments:

How could a field that is between 100 and 200 years old, whose data are so abundantly and so readily at hand, and which has produced impressive evidence for the wealth of input and its effects, be at present still in a state where almost everything is controversial and where misleading conclusions are so predominant? While year in and year out about two billion young people acquire the various levels of widely differing, and therefore learned, mother tongues, learnability of language has been seriously questioned and rejected in some quarters. (2000, p.179)

It can be argued that the major reason for this situation is that the linguistic grammatical classes are still viewed as psychologically real and necessary for language acquisition. Whereas the formal concepts forged by linguists may be appropriate for describing sentence relationships, it is dubious that they are used by native speakers. A sequential-associative theory of morphosyntactic functioning, rooted in pragmatics and semantics, may be proposed as a plausible alternative.

Tongue and Language

Theoretical writing in linguistics witnesses a confusion between tongue (the language of a nation, country, etc.) and language (a neuropsychological function). The major caveat arises in keeping with the tradition of generative grammar. Over a period of 50 years, the aim of Chomsky and followers has been to account for a human faculty of language, defined as the ability to produce and understand an infinite number of grammatical sentences.

Few people have realized the unrealistic character of such a research agenda. Linguistics is a hermeneutic of the tongues. It lacks the methodological tools to go beyond description. Linguists have no experimental control over the situations in which language behaviors occur and have no objective methods for validating empirically alternative theoretical models. There exists a belief in that field (assumed uncritically in psycholinguistics) that what is descriptively relevant must be ipso facto appropriate for explaining how real people proceed when producing sentences. However, to the extent that language functioning is concerned, one is addressing a neuropsychological question calling for a behavioral methodology.

Asking people is enough to convince oneself that native speakers (non-language specialists) ignore grammatical notions. They rely on semantic categories. For example, grammatical subjects are agents or topics of state, verbs specify states, actions or events, clauses express "complete" ideas, etc. Compare with the geometrical definitions in structural linguistics (for example, the reverse-tree scheme for sentence representation): the grammatical subject is the noun head of the noun phrase, located immediately below the symbol for the sentence and there is only one noun in this position.

Such a state of affairs is not alien to the generative linguist. Chomsky (1965) warns:

   Thus a generative grammar attempts to specify what the speaker
   actually knows, not what he may report about his knowledge. (p. 8)

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the typical native speaker tacitly has at her/his disposal the formal machinery described by generative grammar (disregarding differences between successive versions of the theory), where could such a knowledge come from? Generative linguists and psycholinguists (e.g., Pinker, 1994) insist that syntactic categories cannot be induced from the input given that they are not overtly marked and have no one to single correspondence with the semantic categories. Syntactic categories, it is assumed, must be supplied innately or elaborated under the guidance of innate representations. The trouble is that representational inneism has no empirical foundation. Genes coding for universal grammatical representations have yet to be discovered. It is even doubtful that the genome has sufficient capacity for encoding the huge number of binary decisions that would be necessary to account for a linguistic grammar (Kurzwiel, 2006). …

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