The Generativist-Interactionist Debate over Specific Language Impairment: Psycholinguistics at a Crossroads

Stuart Shanker
2002 American Journal of Psychology  
There are certain defining problems in psychology that force us to clarify both the origins and the limits of a paradigm that has long governed our thinking in a particular area of research. The current debate over the nature and causes of Specific Language Impairment is proving to be just such an issue. In particular, the existence of the KE family, 15 of whose 37 members suffer from Specific Language Impairment, has raised far-reaching questions about the conceptual foundations of our current
more » ... ions of our current views about language deficits, and indeed, about language development in general. There are certain defining problems in psychology that force us to clarify both the origins and the limits of a paradigm that has long governed our thinking in a particular area of research. The current debate over the nature and causes of Specific Language Impairment is proving to be just such an issue. In particular, the existence of the KE family, 15 of whose 37 members suffer from Specific Language Impairment, has raised far-reaching questions about the conceptual foundations of our current views about language deficits, and indeed, about language development in general. The Epigenesis of Generative Grammar The meteoric rise of generativism in the 1960s is deeply puzzling. One would have thought that, in the pervasively behaviorist climate that existed at the time, Noam Chomsky's early writings would have met with at least some resistance, if not outright hostility. Yet Chomsky's boisterous attacks on behaviorism, not to mention his open disdain for empirical research, were greeted by psycholinguists with widespread enthusiasm: so much so that a paradigm shift is commonly said to have occurred in the field overnight. Clearly something about the conceptual environment of the time must account The Generativist/Interactionist Debate Over SLI 5 for this apparent anomaly. If we can clarify what it was about Chomsky's ideas that so appealed to behaviorist sentiments, perhaps we can deepen our understanding, not just of the reasons why generativism enjoyed such an immediate success but also, its future prospects. For not only is the nature of a theory inextricably tied to the environment in which it is nurtured, but so too are its continuing fortunes. The obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that Chomsky tapped into the computational Weltanschauung that was sweeping through and transforming psychology. Even though he was careful to distance himself from the strong version of the Mechanist Thesis that was popular at MIT at the time, Chomsky certainly capitalized on computational ideas in his initial attacks on behaviorism: especially when he argued that "in principle it may be possible to study the problem of determining what the built-in structure of an information-processing (hypothesis-forming) system must be to enable it to arrive at the grammar of a language from the available date in the available time" (Chomsky 1957: 58). This so-called 'steady state' argument cast the behaviorist in the role of a neophyte programmer who was struggling to model one of the most complex of all human behaviors using a relatively crude 'Markov chain' technique. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the new breed of computationalists, all of whom were familiar with
doi:10.2307/1423425 pmid:12221917 fatcat:7x7fk5sbcfa3nn7drhvsja65cu