Changing Minds Changing Tools
From Learning Theory to Language Acquisition to Language Change
- Winner of the Bloomfield Book Award, Linguistic Society of America, 2019.
A book that uses domain-general learning theory to explain recurrent trajectories of language change.
In this book, Vsevolod Kapatsinski argues that language acquisition—often approached as an isolated domain, subject to its own laws and mechanisms—is simply learning, subject to the same laws as learning in other domains and well described by associative models. Synthesizing research in domain-general learning theory as it relates to language acquisition, Kapatsinski argues that the way minds change as a result of experience can help explain how languages change over time and can predict the likely directions of language change—which in turn predicts what kinds of structures we find in the languages of the world. What we know about how we learn (the core question of learning theory) can help us understand why languages are the way they are (the core question of theoretical linguistics).
Taking a dynamic, usage-based perspective, Kapatsinski focuses on diachronic universals, recurrent pathways of language change, rather than synchronic universals, properties that all languages share. Topics include associative approaches to learning and the neural implementation of the proposed mechanisms; selective attention; units of language; a comparison of associative and Bayesian approaches to learning; representation in the mind of visual and auditory experience; the production of new words and new forms of words; and automatization of repeated action sequences. This approach brings us closer to understanding why languages are the way they are, Kapatsinski contends, than approaches premised on innate knowledge of language universals and the language acquisition device.
This volume offers extremely insightful and thought-provoking analyses and discussion of the domain-general learning mechanisms that give rise to the complex and rich systems of morpho-phonology found in human languages.
Adele E. Goldberg, Princeton University
This book is elegant in the completeness of its scholarship and brave in its use of learning theory to unify the many complex phenomena in human language learning. Above all, it is important, providing a clear eye on what we know, what we think we know but do not, and what we need to know. And it is a great read, beautifully crafted.
Linda Smith, Distinguished Professor and Chancellor's Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University
Kapatsinski brings a fresh and engaging perspective to the challenge of explaining language structure and language change as emergent consequences of general purpose neurocognitive mechanisms applied to the task of learning to communicate with others already fluent in an existing linguistic and cultural context. Everyone interested in alternatives to the explanatory constructs of 20th-century linguistic theory will want to read this book.
James L. McClelland, Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Stanford University