Understanding Language Acquisition

The Framework of Learning

By Christina E. Erneling

Subjects: Linguistics
Series: SUNY series, Literacy, Culture, and Learning: Theory and Practice
Paperback : 9780791414620, 256 pages, July 1993
Hardcover : 9780791414613, 256 pages, July 1993

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Table of contents



Chapter 1 Learning: Going Beyond Information Given

The Two Problems of Learning: Productivity and the Framework

Historical Attempts to Solve the Problems of Learning

Contemporary Solutions: Skinner, Chomsky, Fodor, and Wittgenstein

The Problem of the Meaningfulness of the Framework: Wittgenstein


The Domestication Model of Learning and Productivity

Summary of the Book

Chapter 2 Fodor's Theory of Learning

The Problem Situation

The Nature of the Framework: Fodor's Theory of Mind

The Productivity of Mental Processes

The Computational Nature of the Mind

The Language of Thought

The Semantics of the Language of Thought

Fodor's Strong Preformist Thesis

Fodor's Theory of Learning

Conclusion: The Myth of Learning

Chapter 3 Problems with Fodor's Account of Learning

Is the Theory Empirical or A Priori?

Fodor Confuses the Description with What It Describes

Learning as Computation

Can the Language of Thought Hypothesis Really Explain Productivity?

Are Fodor's Basic Assumptions Tenable?

Fodor's Strong Preformist Thesis

Is the Language of Thought Intrinsically Meaningful?

The Language of Thought and the Following of Rules

Learning as Translation

Is Fodor's Theory the Only "Remotely Plausible Theory"?


Chapter 4 Wittgenstein 1: Background and the Rejection of a Language of Thought

The Problem Situation


Two Problems of Learning

Problem 1: The Problem of Productivity

Problem 2: The Problem of the Framework

Does Wittgenstein Have a Theory of Learning at All?

Description, not Explanation

Conclusion: The Connection between Meaning and Learning

Wittgenstein and the Language of Thought

Relationship between Early and Later Philosophy

Tractatus and the Language of Thought

Rejection of the Language of Thought Thesis of Tractatus

Criticism of Image- and Act-Psychology

Chapter 5 Wittgenstein 2: Learning is Not Based on the Language of Thought

Rejection of the "Augustinian-Type Account of Learning"

The Problem of the Framework

Ostensive Definition

Understanding or Grasping

Translation as Reading

The Private Language Argument


The Problem of Productivity

Rule Following

Conclusion: A Wittgensteinian Criticism of Fodor

Chapter 6 Wittgenstein 3: Reconstructing a Wittgensteinian Account of Learning


The Problem

Learning as Ostensive Teaching

Learning as Apprenticeship

Learning as Operant Conditioning

Was Wittgenstein a Behaviorist?

Learning as Adaptation

Natural Forms of Life: The Starting Point for Learning

Resemblance between Wittgenstein and Piaget

Learning How to Speak

The Necessity of Examples, Imitation, and Playing

Training and Therapy

The Limits of Learning


Fodor's Criticism of Wittgenstein

Problems with Wittgenstein's Account

Chapter 7 The Domestication Model of Language Acquisition


The Domestication Model

Is Language Species-Specific?

The Brain

Speech Perception

Speech Production


Voluntary Control and Automatization

Syntactical Skills

Semantical Skills



Communicative-Social Skills: The Acquisition of Language Games





Cross-modal Transfer of Skills

Later Learning

Language and Thought

Concluding Remarks

Chapter 8 Conclusion: The Framework and Productivity of Learning


Is the Domestication Model an Improvement over Other Theories?

The Problem of Productivity

The Problem of the Framework

"Knowing How" and "Knowing That"

The Evolution of Language

The Framework and Productivity

The Content of the Framework

Is the Domestication Model an Explanatory Theory

Is the Domestication Model Only a Redescription?

Concluding Remarks

Conclusion: Genes and Jeans





How is language acquisition possible? How is it that humans, within a few years of birth, can speak and understand language, transcending both its limited experience and biological limitations?

In this challenge to the narrow confines of psychology and philosophy, Christina Erneling argues that language acquisition results from the interaction between linguistic creativity inherent in language and a biological and social framework of learning.

Erneling explains and critically analyzes the idea that language acquisition requires a meaningful "language of thought," contrasting this with Wittgenstein's ideas on language and learning. Erneling shows that the assumptions in J. Fodor's development of Chomky's ideas into a theory of "language of thought" have significantly influenced developmental theories, yet fail to resolve the conflict between linguistic creativity and the necessity of a framework for learning. She argues that the later Wittgenstein was more concerned with the conditions of learning than is generally appreciated and shows how his remarks can be developed into an alternative approach to language learning.

Understanding Language Acquisition has profound implications for evaluating hidden metatheoretical assumptions, as well as for empirical research and methods for teaching language and treating language disorders.

Christina Erneling is Professor of Philosophy at York University, Toronto.


"The schism in cognitive science between those who follow the computer model and those who think language is enough in itself is widening. This book is timely and may sway some of the doubters.

"I particularly liked the way that the author focussed on Fodor's exemplary version of the 'language of thought' thesis. Also, it cannot be emphasized enough that Wittgenstein's account of all normative practices requires that there be natural or trained regularities in place before linguistic or other normative practices can be acquired. The consequential step that Wittgenstein makes, of developing a psychology of skills, is well brought out. The book is not only a contribution to the field of developmental psycholinguistics, but to Wittgenstein scholarship. " — Rom Harré, Oxford and Georgetown Universities