Competition model

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The competition model is a psycholinguistic theory of language acquisition and sentence processing, developed by Elizabeth Bates and Brian MacWhinney (1981).

The model suggests that the meaning of language is interpreted by comparing a number of linguistic 'cues' (signaling specific functions) within a sentence, and that language is learned through the competition of basic cognitive mechanisms inside a rich linguistic environment.

It is an emergentist theory of language acquisition and processing, serving as an alternative to strict innatist and empiricist theories.

According to the competition model, competitive cognitive processes operate on a phylogenetic, ontogenetic, and synchronic scale, allowing language acquisition to take place across a wide variety of chronological periods.

Theoretical components[edit]

Sentence processing[edit]

In its original instantiation, the competition model was proposed as a theory of cross-linguistic sentence processing.[1]

The competition model suggests that people interpret the meaning of a sentence by taking into account various linguistic cues contained in the sentence context ('cotext'), such as word order, morphology, and semantic characteristics (e.g., animacy), to compute a probabilistic value for each interpretation, eventually choosing the interpretation with the highest likelihood. According to the model, cue weights are learned inductively on the basis of a 'constrained set of sentence types' and 'limited predictions of sentence meaning' for each language.

Because different languages use different cues to signal meanings, the competition model maintains that cue weights will differ between languages, and users of a given language will use the cue weights associated with that language, to guide their interpretation of sentences.

Thus, when people learn other languages, they must learn which cues are important in which languages, in order to successfully interpret sentences in any language.

Language acquisition[edit]

More recently, the competition model has been developed into a unified theory of first and second language acquisition.[2]

Its scope has been expanded to account for a number of psycholinguistic processes involved in language acquisition, including arenas, cues, storage, chunking, codes, and resonance.

The expanded version of the competition model posits that each of these cognitive mechanisms controls the activation of representations in the target language – and in the native language, as for L2 learners – which compete in the mind of the learner during acquisition and usage of the language.

As in the original version of the model, the weights of the competing representations are computed and adjusted in real-time, based on the learner's experience with the target language.

Thus, the model infers that as the extensiveness of learners' exposure to the target language increases, they will gain an increasingly complete and nuanced understanding of the meaning of sentences in the target language.


By definition, the competition model is an emergentist theory of language acquisition.

Rather than viewing language acquisition as a process that is based on innate, language-specific mechanisms (e.g., Chomsky's concepts of the language acquisition device and universal grammar), or rather as completely dependent upon one's experience with language or on the influence of the environment, the competition model views language acquisition as a process consisting of a series of competitive cognitive processes that act upon an analog linguistic signal.

By applying general cognitive processes to the language stimulus in the presence of a rich and stimulating environment, we are able to connect intrinsically meaningless symbols (words and sentences) to their referents, which allows us to infer meaning.

Thus, in addition to relying on traditional mechanisms of human information processing, the competition model posits that language acquisition must be embodied and situated in order for learners to derive meaning from language.

In this sense, the competition model follows many of the principles of situated cognition, situated learning, and legitimate peripheral participation.

Chronological scales[edit]

Synchronic relevance[edit]

On the synchronic time scale of online language processing, the competition model hypothesizes that utterances provide cues that adjudicate the competition between alternative interpretations. It views language processing as a series of competitions between lexical items, phonological forms, and syntactic patterns. Studies based on the Competition Model have shown that learning of language forms relies on the accurate recording of many exposures to words and patterns in different contexts. If a pattern is reliably present in adult language input, children acquire it quickly. Rare and unreliable language patterns are learned late and are relatively weaker, even in adults.

Ontogenetic relevance[edit]

On the ontogenetic time scale, the competition model posits that language emergence can be examined in at least two ways. One methodology uses neural network models to simulate the acquisition of detailed grammatical structures. Competition model researchers have constructed connectionist models for the acquisition of morphology, syntax, and lexicon in several languages, including English, German, and Hungarian. More recently, the ontogenetic emergence of language has been examined from a biological viewpoint, using data on language processing from children with early focal lesions. The results of studies of these children using reaction time methodologies and neuropsychological tests indicate that, although they have completely normal functional use of language, detailed aspects of processing are slower in some cases. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology, areas of neurological activation involved in specific linguistic tasks have been pinpointed in these children. These results have allowed researchers to evaluate a series of hypotheses regarding sensitive periods for the emergence of language in the brain.

Phylogenetic relevance[edit]

On the phylogenetic time scale, researchers working within the framework of the competition model have begun to examine the ways in which language originally emerged through competitive Darwinian processes. Research on cognitive perspective taking, competition, and brain mechanisms suggests that the most likely account of the origin of language is one grounded on language as a medium of social interaction. In this sense, the elaboration of an emergent account of perspective taking suggests a Vygotskyan approach to language evolution.


Perspective taking[edit]

On the level of mental model construction, the communicative functions of language postulated by the competition model have been related to the process of perspective taking.[3] This process allows the human mind to construct an ongoing cognitive simulation of the meaning of an utterance coded in linguistic abstractions, through the use of perceptual realities derived from one's embodied experience.[4] The perspective taking approach views the forms of grammar as emerging from repeated acts of perspective taking and perspective switching during online language comprehension. Grammatical devices such as pronouns, case, voice, and attachment can all be seen as ways of expressing shifts in a basically ego-centered perspective. One major goal in this line of research is to better understand the brain mechanisms underlying perspective shifting during language comprehension.

Second language acquisition[edit]

In addition to accounting for the acquisition of a first language by children, the competition model accounts for the learning of second languages. In its conceptualization, the model's creators used linguistic data from 18 different languages to elaborate the parameters and mechanisms of the model.

Empirical studies conducted within the competition model framework have supported the predictions of a connectionist perspective, emphasizing the role of transfer and interference in second language learning.

Although first and second language acquisition share many features in common, they also differ because of a series of four risk factors (entrenchment, transfer, over analysis, and social isolation) which the adult second language learner faces. Fortunately, a determined adult second language learner can also rely on a series of protective factors to compensate for these disadvantages.

These compensatory factors include resonance, working to connect new L2 forms; decoupling, operating to bind together L2 as separate from L1; chunking, reducing the effects of overanalysis; and participation, countering the tendency to social isolation.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ MacWhinney, Brian; Elizabeth Bates (1989). The Crosslinguistic Study of Sentence Processing. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-26196-1.
  2. ^ Kroll, Judith; Annette M. B. DeGroot (2005). "A unified model of language acquisition". Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 49–67. ISBN 0-19-515177-1.
  3. ^ MacWhinney, Brian (1977). "Starting points". Language. 53: 152–168. doi:10.2307/413059.
  4. ^ MacWhinney, Brian (2008). How mental models encode embodied linguistic perspectives. In Klatzkty, MacWhinney, & Behrmann Embodiment, Ego-Space and Action. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 368–410.
  5. ^ MacWhinney, Brian (2015). Multiidimensional SLA in S. Eskildsen & T. Cadierno Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 22–45.

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