Geoffrey K. Pullum

in Linguistics

ISBN: 9780199772810
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:

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The study of language learnability is not the same thing as the study of how language acquisition actually proceeds, either in infants or among mature speakers. Learnability deals with how any agent at all—human, animal, or machine—could in principle achieve such a thing as acquiring a language. The kinds of questions raised include what input data are needed and what procedures would work for acquiring mastery of what sorts of linguistic systems. To a considerable extent, therefore, works on language learnability have a logical or mathematical character, not an empirical character. Related topics include the psychological and computational study of pattern recognition in psychology and the philosophical study of induction. The published works on learnability often present theorems couched in terms of abstract devices, such as Turing machines or other automata. They do not typically present empirical findings, but they do set limits on viable hypotheses and point out obstacles standing in the way of empirical theorizing about language acquisition. “Acquirability” might have been a better term than “learnability,” because many linguists believe language is not entirely learned through experience with the environment in the way that many everyday skills are; it is acquired via rapid unconscious triggering of an inbuilt language-acquisition component of our brains—a component that in effect specifies most of the details of language design in advance. But “learnability” is a familiar term, and its use here should be understood as neutral regarding the empirical realities of language acquisition. Some key works on learnability of languages emanate from fields like mathematics, logic, and informatics. The annotations in this article sometimes contain parenthetical warnings that the work is from one of these technical fields rather than from within linguistics proper.

Article.  4145 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Anthropological Linguistics ; Language Families ; Psycholinguistics ; Sociolinguistics

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