Does Language Emerge?

English (or any other language people speak) is hopelessly unsuited to serve as our internal medium of computation.

Stephen Pinker – The language instinct

People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use – what else, words!


Does language emerge? And what exactly does that mean? Sugata Mitra defines emergence as the appearance of a property not previously observed as a functional characteristic of the system. Meddings and Thornbury (Teaching Unplugged) define emergence as “the idea that certain systems are more than the sum of their parts and that a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity”. All right, then. Why is it that I am writing about this? Well, Karenne Sylvester has published a blog post asking fellow bloggers to share their views regarding dogme in response to some challenges she is putting forward every Thursday. This is the bit she used as a basis to encourage us all to post an answer:

If learners are supplied with optimal conditions for language use,  and are motivated to take advantage of these opportunities, their inherent learning capacities will be activated, and language – rather than being acquired – will emerge.

I guess the more meaningful teachers make language use, the easier it will be for learners to recall it. Successful, long-lasting learning is meaningful and personal. Needless to say, I do believe that people learn in different ways – one man’s meat is another man’s poison. However, I must say I really like the sentence that Karenne wrote on her blog post, which was taken from Teaching Unplugged. I’ll even go further and say that I agree with it.


By Cliff


It’s not an easy thing for teachers to provide learners with the optimal conditions for learning – I guess it’s even difficult for anyone to define what these optimal conditions are. We may, however, give it a try. When I think of optimal conditions for language use, I think of any kind of setting that poises no threat to the learner or language user. This may come from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – basic needs, etc. But this might be too abstract for some. How about going for the affective aspect of learning?

If our learners are put in a situation in which they feel they may speak freely without the fear of being misunderstood, and if they feel the classroom is a safe environment for them to make mistakes, this classroom might be considered, as much as possible, a place that offers optimal conditions for language use. Learners have got to pass the affective feedback in order to receive cognitive feedback, as Brown has illustrated quite well.

If learners feel they’re in a place where risks can be taken, well, it’s only fair that they feel a tad more confident and motivated to speak. This motivation to utter anything, however, depends a lot on the value of the learning activity that’s going to be carried out by the teachers. At this moment, it’s paramount that the teacher knows the group he or she is teaching. It’s only by knowing your audience that you can cater for them successfully. Fortunately, there’s one thing pretty much all human beings enjoy doing – engaging in conversation. Granted, not all of them like talking about the same things, but if you find out what ticks them, they’ll become chatterboxes.

We use language to hold conversations. We only speak because we want to have a conversation, regardless of the final purpose of such a conversation might be – finding out something about the person you’re talking to, persuading your interlocutor, apologising, making excuses, learning something, etc. If there’s no need to have a conversation, we pretty much eliminate the need for language, don’t we? Well, if this is so, we’ve got to learn how to say what we want to say in a way that our interlocutor understands, and we usually “learn” first what is meaningful to us. How many teenage girls have already learned how to say, “I love you” in at least nine different languages at a certain time in their lives? Why do they do so? Because it’s meaningful for them at that specific moment.

If teachers go out with their adult learners to have a class outside the boundaries of the classroom, it is amazing how much language learners remember from such an activity. I have already witnessed that. And I would say that, in that particular moment, they were experiencing optimal conditions for language use in a meaningful setting that motivated them to talk to one another using a language they were all still learning.

I have one more anecdote to share before I finish this. This happened to my dad when he was travelling in Europe, more specifically in Germany. He had never studied German, but he could speak lots of different languages: Russian, Romenian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Portuguese. When they got to Germany, a local spoke to them in German, to which he promptly answered in German. He was stratled by his reply, as he never knew he could speak German – but there it was.

Is this a fact of language emerging? Or is it just the complicated intricacies of our language generating machine that we still don’t know much about at work? Language emerges in a way that we witness a learner who’s never studied conditionals, for instance, being able to utter a correct sentence using such structure. How did it happen? He’s probably been exposed to it before, or maybe his brain simply tried out a certain structure based on previous knowledge. The fact is that there was the need for a certain sentence, and the brain simply took care of it.

Language can be taught, it can be learned, consciousness awareness is also an important aspect to be taken into account, but language also emerges. Learners will go beyond the bits and pieces that they’ve been taught and will be able to come up with something original as long as we teach them it’s OK to try. It is language interaction that fosters language learning, not exposure alone. And interaction asks for originality, it asks for more than what was taught. It asks for a certain drive to speak and manipulate the language, which subsequently emerges naturally.

Will I ever change my mind? Oh, probably! Perhaps even after some persuasive comments to this post, but so far this is what I believe in.


More posts in response to this question:

20 thoughts on “Does Language Emerge?

  1. As I said before in the Dogme ring, co-construction, which supports emergence, is not what comes first for me. Therefore, the primary aim of language in my humble opinion is not for communication.

    “Without language, consciousness as a human form of mental reflection would be impossible.” Leontiev (Psychology and the language learning process)

    We first need language to find meaning in the things we see, it’s a tool to position ourselves in the world. Organizing, categorizing, differentiating, etc, are natural human mental activities we use to locate ourselves in relation to the environment and integrate, as opposed to simply adapt ( I mentioned that in the first Dogme post). Language is what makes these faculties possible.

    Chances are this is nothing but bullshitty philosophy, but again, what does it matter? We men of wisdom (haha) need not only to feed our stomach, we need to feed our minds, maybe that’s where the expression ‘food for thought’ came from. After all, engaging in deep mental reflection makes nothing more than a great excuse to put off washing the dishes, that’s true for me at least.

    Thanks for another plateful post Henrick! Hope all is well in our nation’s capital.

    1. Hi Willy,

      Apart from politics, all seems to be going well in Brasília. But then again, in an election year, politics pretty much ruin everything, huh?!

      I guess your quote from Leontiev brings us back to the Thought – Language question, doesn’t it? The truth is we still don’t know how exactly the brain works, and it’s probably going to take ages for this to happen. In the meantime, we can only make our educated guesses based on what we read, observe, reflect and think about. And as long as we all keep an open mind and do not dismiss other’s opinions out of hand upon hearing them, we’re likely to learn a thing or two. 🙂

      This is why I enjoy this – blogging, commenting, discussing – so much. As long as we’re all engaged in a healthy discussion, this will always be a much better option than doing the dishes! 🙂

      Hope all is well in the UK! 🙂

  2. Hi Rick, a lovely post. Your dad sounds amazing! The Language Instinct has been very influential on me. Is the Sugata Mitri post the Hole in the Wall one? The talk is both funny and amazing to watch.

    (How do I make links?? I’m such a novice!)

    Our nextdoor neighbour’s cat sits outside the window waiting to be let in. She seems patient enough, no pressing engagements, but when she sees me, she jumps up and starts pawing the window. What’s going on in her little furry head? Certainly thoughts of some kind. Logical reasoning (and emotional blackmail)? As I understand it, consciousness is on a cline, and not an either/or scenario (have you read Fuzzy Thinking?). Does a feline pseudo-language exist?


    1. Hi David,

      Yes, I was referring to the Hole in the Wall experiment, and your link appeared just right. I think wordpress automatically recognises URLs and change them into links.

      I haven’t read Fuzzy Thinking, but it sure looks interesting. When it comes to pets, we see them behaving in many different and interesting ways. I do think there may be some kind of ‘rational’ thought – or is it just instinct?

      Cheers! 🙂

  3. Nice thinking post Henrick!
    I had to actually look up the truest definition of “emerge” and wrap my head around language emerging, and for now, I think that language does NOT emerge. Emerging by definition ‘comes into existence’, which language does not. Language is not static. Instead language is active, is grown, is learned, and/or is acquired.

    There are emergent speakers and there are optimal environments, but language does not just ‘come into existence’ for any given speaker—language is the byproduct that is worked for through prior knowledge, through relevance and meaningfulness and need to communicate and understand—either with text, sounds, or gestures. …I do however, like the metaphor…..

    Your father has an outstanding understanding of the intricacies of the way language works, and genuinely has a talent and aptitude for acquiring new ones. So cool!

    nice post…keep ’em rollin’

    1. Hi Susi,

      As usual, your comments always get me thinking. 🙂

      Could I say we agree on the bit that it’s very difficult for us to draw a line between learned and acquired? How do we know, based on Krashen’s work, when one starts and the other ends? Now, when it comes to emergence, I like the definition that leads us to believing that the sum is a lot more than the individual parts being put together. And this is where I see the idea of language as an emergent system. When we think about a classroom environment, for instance, there are many occurrences of learners coming up with structures they are unlikely to have seen/learned elsewhere. Nevertheless, there’s a need for communication that needs to be fulfilled, and this is done by coming up with utterances in an attempt to get the message across. What exactly happens in those little brains of theirs is something hard to explain.

      I agree with you when you say that “language is the byproduct that is worked for through prior knowledge, through relevance and meaningfulness and need to communicate and understand”, but I guess there might be more to it, and this is where I think of emergence – when the need to get the message across has got to be worked out even when there’s no prior knowledge to help us out.

      Many thanks for all this food for thought! It will certainly keep me thinking about this matter for a looong time… 🙂

  4. This is such an interesting and very rich post, Rick and I simply can’t decide which point I particularly wanted to comment on but Susi’s comment has also given me pause so I will start there…

    I believe instead that basic language does emerge by itself but I also believe that it is not static, that it also evolves by our evolving needs – I think, I don’t know which of the arguing linguistics I am supported by – but I think that it goes like this

    there is a need to communicate with each other about x

    and if x has a name we use this. And if there is no name then we give it one

    and in order to communicate of x’s relationship to y we must use a structure in which we can both you can understand this – the x that we need to say and the when/who/what/why/whree.

    And if there is no structure then we create one. But if there is a structure to that pattern from something else we used/learned then we borrow that particular structure and hope for the best.

    And we unconsciously pass on that new word or different structure to the people around us and if those people are influential enough, then others are attracted to it and then they pass it on however once they lose influence or attractiveness then we lose it…

    We humans are not here in isolation.

    Your father, in my humble opinion, had the roots of all the languages he needed to make an “educated” guess at what was meant to be said. He might as easily been wrong as right but his guess was not random, it was built on the trees of language his brain had already amassed. The sentence in this case, emerged, out of his brain’s historical references.

    But words and sentences can often emerge just out of a need to name something and this can as easily be a nonsense word… initially, until everyone is saying it…

    Waffle, waffle… back to the other points

    Like your Dad, I have found myself in situations where I have been required to speak in an L2 of relative difficult structure using words that I must have simply picked up unconsciously – from the media or elsewhere – who knows (and this has happened to me in both Spanish and in German and I’ve also watched my students doing this, and seen the trace of shock in their faces when it happens) – and have surmised that in situations of relative “pressure,” the brain goes into some kind of overdrive and makes links before producing sounds!

    Anyway, I am fascinated by this and by creating these “optimal” situations for this to occur – it might be through realistic roleplays (simulations) it might also be relaxing conversations where students are encouraged to talk about the things they’re interested in – and the simple need for the other people in the room to understand what is being said comes into play into the correct forms emerging and if not, can then be scaffolded by the teacher.

    I hope this makes sense (that my meaning emerged..)


    1. Hi Karenne,

      You’ve put me in a difficult position there to reply to your comments. What else can I say but “I second that”?

      It certainly made sense to me, so much so that really can’t think of anything else to say after re-reading it many times. I guess I’ll just say:

      – Read Karenne’s comments above! 🙂

  5. Thank you to Willy, Susi, Karenne, and of course Rick for starting it off. The comments are very interesting. If I understand correctly, then Susi is saying that there is a fixed thing to be learned, in whatever way. Karenne talks about a learner, a child learning L1 for example, formulating her own rules, an interlanguage that follows her temporary rules but which may or may not be the accepted one. “Builded” is a classic example, and formed by induction. I’ve just started David Crystal’s “Begat” about the influence of the King James Bible on English. Here, I’ve learned that “their’s” and “our’s” were the accepted spellings, as well as “builded”, but all slipped out of use. Anyone for Esperanto?

    1. Hi David,

      When you mentioned “builded”, I couldn’t help but remember Lightbown and Spada’s “How languages are learned”. Who has a better grasp of L2, a learner who understands the idea of -ed for the past, or a learner who simply memorised ‘built’, but doesn’t really know when or how to use it? So much to think when it comes to this idea of language learning, emerging, or whatever people may want to call it, huh?!

      There were some people who spoke/studied Esperanto who posted some comments here in the past. I myself can’t say much about it, but I hope there’s still one or two lurking out there who might feel like replying to this comment.

  6. As I read your post, I am going back to some reflections I wrote on learning a few months ago. Particularly when you say,
    “Learners have got to pass the affective feedback in order to receive cognitive feedback, as Brown has illustrated quite well.”
    I think this distinction is key to be able to talk about the same thing when we discuss learning as separate from the conditions that allow it to emerge.
    Could you let me know where I can read more about Brown?

    Thank you for your time to write this thoughtful post.

    In case you’re interested, here are my thoughts on learning:

    1. Hi Claudia,

      That’s quite an informative post, the one you shared! Many thanks for this contribution to the thread.

      At this moment, the only reference I can think of about Brown are his three best-selling books about language teaching and learning: Teaching by Principles, Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, and Language Assessment. IMO, these have got to be part of any kind of teachers development programme or training.

      Hope this was helpful! 🙂

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