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  • Date Submitted: 11/17/2010 11:51 PM
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Language as a Process

William Croft
University of New Mexico

It has been said that one's approach to language acquisition depends on one's theory of language, that is, one's theory of what the end state of the language acquisition process is. But another way of looking at the question is to see language not as the result state of some type of learning process, but as a process itself, so that there is complete continuity in kind between what an infant is doing and what an adult is doing with language. This is the view of language that will be sketched in this talk.

Language plays a supporting role in human social interaction, more specifically joint actions. Joint actions require coordination between the actors; communication is a highly effective coordination device; but communication is also a joint action, posing coordination problems; convention is another highly effective coordination device; and language is a conventional coordination device for communication.

Language is thus part of a social process. Language itself is behavior: speakers replicate linguistic structures in utterances for social purposes. Replication is never perfect: the very nature of human interaction, such as the fact that we cannot read each other's minds and that our histories of social and linguistic behavior are not the same, guarantees that replication generates variation and ultimately language change (cultural evolution). One important consequence of this perspective on language is that the central symbolic relationship in the linguistic system is a probabilistic one relating exemplars of linguistic form to exemplars of situations for which those forms have been used.

Language is thus a dynamic process. Children participate in this process by replicating utterances in increasingly successful efforts to interact socially with their caregivers and their peers, and to enter more fully into the communities to which they belong. Children are developing in terms of...