When speaking about emergentism we mainly refer to the interaction between organism and environment and that denies the existence of pre-determined, domain specific faculties or capacities. In language acquisition, emergentists state that simple learning mechanisms are sufficient to bring about the emergence of complex language representations.
There are two types of emergentism. On the one hand, there is one type based on input, which is the input-based emergentism (emergentist-connectionist model). On the other hand, there is the one that considers the role of the processing working memory, which, however, does not ignore the contribution of the input to the process of language acquisition, but emphasizes on the frequency of occurrence.
Skill acquisition is a theory in the field of cognitive science. It is believed that learning a language is quite similar to learning other skills such as driving a car or playing the piano. This theory mentions that language learning involves different stages of the cognitive process. Like other skills, it starts with conscious attention, controlled processing and effort, but through practice, it will lead to automaticity. For example, when someone wants to learn how to drive a car, they need to pay attention to different aspects at the same time. However, through practice, one could automatically drive a car with less attention. In skill acquisition theory, there is a movement from declarative to procedural knowledge. This theory explains the underlying knowledge which is required to achieve a specific skill, and the productive skills are the representation of the system which has been internalized.
Considering the underlying assumptions, these two theories fall within different cognitive theories. A first aspect is that skill acquisition is considered as a psycholinguistic model, suggesting that language is similar to other cognitive processes. Psycholinguistics shows that language skill is the result of earlier language use and it is affected by the learner’s practice and experience with the language and the world. Researchers showed that this function applies to a wide range of skills including cigar rolling, syllogistic reasoning, book writing, industrial production, reading inverted text and lexical decision. On the other hand, emergentism draws both on social-interactionist and nativist theories by mainly focusing both on the role of input and innate mechanisms in the process of language learning. Children are born with neurons and brain which make them able to acquire language.
By elaborating on different models of knowledge, scientists draw on another distinction. Symbolic models such as skill acquisition and Emergentist connectionist models are different on how they represent knowledge. Skill acquisition contains a component of declarative and a component of the procedural organization, while the Emergentist connectionist models is a type of architecture in which knowledge is represented not only by means of symbols but also in a distributed way, as a pattern of activation in a neural network containing hidden units.
Another difference between these theories is related to their views towards the role of implicit knowledge. Skill acquisition theory results from automatized explicit knowledge which is usually achieved through practice, while in emergentist theories implicit knowledge develops during meaning-focused communication, aided, perhaps, by some focus on form. Furthermore, these two theories also differ with respect to the role of input. Emergentism is based on input. One type of this approach is based on input and it is called input-based emergentism. However, skill acquisition is believed to be based on output and it is mainly concerned with language behaviors.
As a result, depending on the purpose of instruction, each of these theories could be taken by practitioners. If the focus is on the developmental stages of language learning, practice, and then the final output, the skill acquisition theory would suit the context. However, if the focus is on the characteristics of input and input manipulation, emergentism would be the practical underlying theory.
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