Usage-based Language Learning

The fundamental claim of usage-based language learning theory is that language acquisition emerges from language use. In other words, we learn language structures and words by using language and by understanding the language that other people use. It’s essentially a first language acquisition theory, but it has ramifications for second language learning.

The theory argues that infants start to develop the cognitive skills necessary for language acquisition between the ages of 9 and 12 months. These cognitive skills, together with opportunities to connect language with experience, are really all they need to acquire their mother tongue. There are two broad sets of cognitive skills that come into play around this time:

Intention Reading Skills

Intention reading is a social-pragmatic skill in which you try to manipulate the intentions or mental states of another person. Even before they can speak, infants are able to do this. By about 9 months, babies will follow the direction of a pointing finger to another object or event and, during their first year, will start to point at things, hold things up and use other gestures to direct the attention of other people towards objects and events, both in the realm of an immediate activity such as a toy they are both playing with, and towards an object or event outside of their interaction.

This is fledgling communication. Gestures such as pointing are prelinguistic communication symbols that pave the way for language (in fact, in the early stages of language use, pointing will often accompany words).

Pattern Spotting

Humans are natural spotters of patterns, and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the learning of language structures is about spotting patterns in the ‘noise’ of language rather than learning rules. While learning rules (or patterns) might speed up the language learning process for adults and older children, it’s not an option for infants. Luckily, their ability to spot patterns in the language they are hearing is enough for them to grasp language structures.

Pattern spotting involves skills like the ability to categorise objects and events, and the ability to make analogies, and it enables young children to notice patterns in the language they hear.

These skills are necessary for children to acquire the appropriate use of any and all linguistic symbols.

Michael Tomasello (2012)

How it works

According to usage-based language learning theory, children don’t learn words directly. Instead, they try to comprehend things said to them (utterances). If they hear their Dad saying “throw the ball”, the first thing a young child must do is to understand that Dad wants her to throw the ball, possibly to him depending on the context. But these utterances are not a random collection of words, they have a structure. and within this structure, individual words have specific functions which add to the meaning of the whole utterance. In understanding the utterance, children have to work out the functions of its individual words, or at least some of them. Learning specific words and their function within an utterance probably comes through repeated exposure to the word, such as in utterances like “where’s the ball?”, “that’s my ball”, “gimme the ball”, “that ball is Katya’s” and “the ball’s in the bush”. Adults can often be a big help in this by stressing key words. Eventually, “ball” becomes a useful word for a young child who wants to say something about a ball, whether it be about throwing or looking or wanting to play with a ball. The single word “ball” is used for anything to do with a ball.

So usage-based language learning theory (UBLLT) says that words emerge from utterances, and language structures also emerge from utterances because words and structures both have meaning.

In UBLLT, language meaning is language use. And out of meaning emerges language. Simply put, language acquisition emerges from language use.

Usage-based learning theory is based around the idea that we learn language by using it. Language is essentially a collection of words and structures that have meaning, and we learn these meanings by using them.

Usage-based learning theory has been developed in the field of cognitive linguistics, a relatively new branch of linguistic study. It’s about 20 years old.

Universal Grammar

It rejects the idea of Universal GrammarUG is the idea that humans are born with a language blueprint, made up of general principles of language that guides the development of a child’s mother tongue. The argument, made by Chomsky and other proponents of UG, is that infants need to be born with this language blueprint because they don’t have the cognitive skills to be able to grasp the abstract grammar of their own languages and, in any case, they don’t receive the right kind of language input to be able to work out these rules for themselves – what’s called the ‘poverty of the input’ hypothesis. Therefore, babies must be born with a rudimentary grammar in their head, but one that applies to all languages – a universal grammar – which infants can then modify based on input from their own mother tongue.

Universal Grammar argues that grammar is the driving force behind language, that grammar generates language. It places grammar at the heart of language development, with things like the lexicon and pragmatics subservient to grammar. If you know the rules of grammar, say exponents of what is called generative grammar, you can construct an almost limitless array of language.

But in the last 20 years, a new view of language learning has emerged, one claiming that grammatical rules are simply patterns that occur in language and that an understanding of these patterns comes from language use. In other words, language use generates grammar.

If grammar is really just a way of describing patterns in language, then all a child needs to learn their mother tongue is the ability to spot patterns. And children develop the ability to spot patterns towards the end of their first year, so they don’t need Universal Grammar to help them learn language. 

In any case, grammar isn’t really a bunch of abstract rules. Grammar has meaning: ‘the girl kicked’ has a different meaning to ‘the girl was kicked’. Because they have meaning, children learn grammatical structures in pretty much the same way as they learn the meaning of individual words. They don’t learn the passive as “NP + to be + past participle”, they learn the passive by associating meaning to it.


Dan Slobin (1997)

Deb Roy (2009). New Horizons in the Study of Child Language Acquisition

Elena Lieven and Michael Tomasello (2008), Children’s First Language Acquisition from a usage-based perspective, in P. Robinson and N. Ellis, Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition

Michael Tomasello (2003), Constructing a Language

Michael Tomasello (2012), The usage-based theory of language acquisition in Bavin, E.L. (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Child Language.


One thought on “Usage-based Language Learning

    Usage-based Language Learning « eal360 said:
    January 17, 2014 at 11:48 am

    […] Usage-based Language Learning […]

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