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Abstract Bartsch

Introducing the Lexical Bootstrapping Hypothesis (LBH)

The main goal of this review and discussion paper is to formulate a working hypothesis of Lexical Bootstrapping as one of the most crucial learning processes taking place in the course of early language development. LBH is directly related to Bates et al.’s (1988) proposal of “heterotypic continuity” in language development, i.e., to language-learning processes reyling on the interdependence of linguistic domains. Put briefly, LBH might read as follows: Early lexical development, as mapping of words to referents or their conceptualisations, and even to whole propositions, is not only prior to, but also pre-requisite for the emergence of morpho-syntactic constructions. Relying on Zemb (1978), early words might be seen as “archilexemes”, i.e., grammarless lexemes composed of form and concept only, here understood as the means by which the child begins to cognise and categorise the world, a process that continues with the emergence of patterned speech.

LBH is, arguably, not a new proposal. It has been put forward, implicitly or explicitly, in language learning research for some 3 decades. In this reflective synthesising paper, after a short survey on some different definitions and sorts of bootstrapping processes proposed in language development research, the literature supporting, or in line with, LBH (some examples: Howell & Becker 2001; Bassano et al. 2004; the papers in ELeGi 2006) is reviewed and then discussed in terms of possible criticisms to, and methodological and theoretical implications of, LBH.

Some relevant methodological consequences are related to the role of vocabulary measures as matching criteria in cross-linguistic studies, as well as, in correlation with grammatical measures, central criteria for the diagnosis of, and distinction between, transient and persistent language impairments. One criticism to (a part of) the relevant literature is the focus on statistic aspects combined to the lack of more substantial reflection on underlying cognitive processes. And indeed, LBH has implications for theories of language, language learning, and learning in general. For instance, it challenges some crucial premises of formal linguistics, such as modularity of cognition and language or autonomy and primacy of syntax over lexis and semantics, since it is a hypothesis about the continuity of lexis and grammar in early language development and since it is also a general lexicalist hypothesis in that it attributes a fundamental role to lexis not only for language development, but also to language processing, evolution, and change. Finally, LBH might be understood as part of a broader Vygotskyan/Piagetian picture of the human mind, in which language, cognition, and experience are closely intertwined.



Bassano, D., Laaha, S., Maillochon, I., & Dressler, W. U. (2004). Early acquisition of verb grammar and lexical development: Evidence from periphrastic constructions in French and Austrian German. First Language, 24(1), pp. 33–70.

Bates, E., Bretherton, I., & Snyder, L. 1988. From First Words to Grammar: Individual differences and dissociable mechanisms. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

ELeGi 2006: International Conference “Exploring the Lexis-Grammar Interface”, Hanover, October 5-7, 2006 (at the same time as our session).

Howell, S. R., & Becker, S. (2001). Modelling language acquisition: Grammar from the lexicon? In J. Moore, & K. Stenning (Eds.), Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Edinburg, August 1-4, 2001 (pp. 457–462). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Zemb, J.-M. (1978). Vergleichende Grammatik Französisch Deutsch: Comparaison de deux systèmes. Mannheim et al.: Bibliographisches Institut.