There’s always room in academia for a maverick idea to become mainstream

When you are in the midst of your studies and the majority of the information you receive is from experienced professors whom you respect, or from dense, peer-reviewed journals, it is easy to start thinking that academics know it all, which can feel intimidating. True academics, however, know that there is always more to discover and welcome challenges to their ways of thinking! New hypotheses may not always pan out, but they usually add more to our knowledge about the world, and that is the important thing. 

Even well-established theories, which have been thought to be true for a long time, are not necessarily untouchable. Let’s consider the field of linguistics, specifically language acquisition. For most of the 20thcentury, researchers in linguistics worked on the basis of Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar (UG), or generative linguistics (Mitchell et al., 2013). Children generally acquire their first language rapidly and effortlessly, and can soon use seemingly infinite combinations of words that appear to easily follow that language’s grammatical rules (Mitchell et al., 2013). For Chomsky, this is evidence that humans have an innate system in our brain specifically designed for language, this being UG (Pinker, 1994). Accepting the concept referred to by Steven Pinker (1994) as the language instinct, generativists believe that just as bees are genetically hardwired to pollinate flowers and birds to fly, humans are wired to process and produce language. Under a UG framework, finite overarching grammar rules are already stored in the brain, and the language we are exposed to the most as babies flicks pre-set switches for linguistic features like word order (Mitchell et al., 2013).

It was not until the late 1990s that a concrete opposing theory came along. Psycholinguist (and cognitive psychologist) Nick Ellis is one of the most prolific researchers in the area of usage-based linguistics. Usage-based theorists like Ellis (2002) maintain we use the same learning mechanisms for learning a language as we do for learning any skill, and do not believe we are born with grammar rules pre-programmed into our brains. Instead, factors like frequency (how often we hear a word or series of words) and salience (how noticeable a linguistic feature is) provide a rational explanation for language learning (in the sense that we learn based on our individual experiences with language) (Ellis, 2002; 2008). This could explain more about the evolution of language (words developing a new meaning or grammatical rules “shifting” over time) and sociolinguistic variation (why we may talk differently and have a different vocabulary from other native speakers depending on where in our home country we grew up).

One interesting area of research which falls under a usage-based framework is cognitive linguistics, which in part investigates how we map words and their meanings in our minds. In the relatively short history of academic linguistic study, the use of metaphor and idioms have been dismissed to a certain extent as being on the fringes of language use. Researchers like Andrea Tyler (2008) argue that metaphor is pervasive in all languages, and this suggests humans use it universally (if not consistently) to better understand the world around them. 

Applying this idea, Tyler notes that many learners of English struggle with the nuances of modal verbs (verbs like could and might, which show modalities like permission or possibility) and argues that most language textbooks present them in a superficial and unconnected way. She explains that modal verbs might originally have expressed literal barriers which over time became metaphorical. For example, when we use may for permission, we can imagine an authority figure physically removing a barrier, relating to its original meaning. You may leave the classroom. When we use it for possibility, Tyler suggests we imply there is no such barrier to our prediction. I don’t know for sure where Michal is, but he may be in the library: Nothing stops me from concluding this, but nothing compels me to either. Tyler (2008) has conducted small-scale studies with advanced learners of English using materials based on these principles. These studies showed promising results, with participants in the second study showing a twenty percent improvement in the correct usage of modal verbs (p. 483). This is known as consciousness-raising, where drawing learners’ attention to an aspect of language helps their minds to map it more effectively (Ellis, 2008). If larger-scale studies show similar results, using this type of material could help language learners progress further than they would have thought possible. For second language learners looking to attend English-medium universities like UNYP, this could have an important impact.

In an interview with Cambridge University Press (2018), Nick Ellis describes his peers’ initial reaction to his usage-based theories and research as ranging from excited through cautiously curious to completely dismissive. Today, usage-based linguistics provides one of the most mainstream frameworks in the study of language acquisition. The prevalence of Chomskyian theories in linguistics impacted hypotheses and research design for decades before it was brought into question, but the past twenty years have seen research in the field being approached from an entirely different perspective. Even now, the field of language acquisition research remains somewhat divided between generativists and usage-based theorists (among others), but these differing viewpoints can also spark more interest and passion in research. We still have so much more to discover about how the brain stores and produces language, and indeed about cognition overall.

In academia, it is necessary to deal in facts, which is why we ask you to support your ideas with suitable sources and studies. However, it is also worth remembering that our interpretation of what we perceive to be factual often changes, based on factors as diverse as our social and cultural backgrounds, and the technologies available to help us observe and measure phenomena. Don’t be afraid to question well-established theories in class or in your writing if you feel you can support your argument. Your hypothesis could be the next maverick idea to go mainstream!

 

References

Cambridge University Press. (2018, December 18). An interview with Nick Ellis for studies in second language acquisition [Video]. YouTube. 

Ellis, N.C. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition. 24, 143-188. 

Ellis, N.C. (2008). The dynamics of second language emergence cycles. The Modern Language Journal. 92(ii), 232-249.

Mitchell, R., Myles, F., & Marsden, E. (2013). Second language learning theories (3rd edition). Routledge. 

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. Penguin Random House.

Tyler, A. (2008). Cognitive linguistics and second language instruction. In P. Robinson & N. C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition. Routledge.

 

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