Disentangling Two Debates: Domain-Specificity vs Nativism

Two fundamental debates dominate the field of language and psycholinguistics: the first concerns whether language processing arises from innate mechanisms or learned processes, and the second concerns whether language relies on domain-general or domain-specific systems. These questions are not completely independent of one another, neither in the way they have been approached in the literature nor in terms of the evidence that bears on them.

However, these questions can be viewed as distinct in at least three ways. First, domain-general processes can also be innately guided, although this argument is seldom represented in the literature. Second, language-specific mechanisms need not be innately specified, although that view is also seldom represented in the literature. These two points demonstrate that the debates are in fact theoretically orthogonal, regardless of whether they are commonly presented that way. Finally, evidence interpreted in the context of one debate does not necessarily apply to the other debate, although in several cases this is either wrongly claimed or strongly implied.

Both nativists and empiricists confound the question of innateness with that of domain-specificity. For example, some adamant empiricists claim to oppose “a broader view that human cognitive mechanisms are symbolic, modular, innate and domain-specific” (McClelland & Patterson, 2002), while those who emphasize the “innate aspect of grammatical knowledge” (Lidz & Gleitman, 2004) contrast their view with those that espouse “domain-general pragmatic constraints.” In both cases, the debate is multifaceted – it combines the issues of domain-generality and those of nativism.

As one might expect based on these excerpts, it is frequently assumed that language-specific mechanisms are what nativists believe is innate, and conversely that domain-general mechanisms are what empiricists believe is developed with experience. But to demonstrate that issues related to nativism and those related to domain-specificity are in fact distinct, it is necessary to substantiate the plausibility of two claims, covered separately in this week's upcoming posts.

Wednesday Nov 1st: Some domain-general mechanisms need not be learned
Thursday Nov 2nd: Some domain-specific mechanisms need not be innate
Friday Nov 3rd: Dissociations from data and conclusions


Lidz J, & Gleitman LR. 2004. Argument structure and the child's contribution to language learning. Trends Cogn Sci. 2004 Apr;8(4):157-61.

McClelland, J. L. & Patterson, K. (2002). Rules or Connections in Past-Tense inflections: What does the evidence rule out? Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 6:11 (2002), pp 465-472


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