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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Transmission, Self-Organization, and the Emergence of Language: A Dynamic Systems Point of View



Language is a human capacity that is typically transmitted from one generation to another (one speaks about one's mother tongue, for instance). However, what does transmission mean in this regard? The concept of transmission is well defined in fields like physics or the mathematical theory of information, where it relates to deep principles of the organization of matter, such as entropy. To what extent do we understand transmission if language is concerned? How does it relate to claims about language as an innate capacity? How does intergenerational transmission relate to the emergence or evolution of language over many generations? This chapter discusses these questions from the point of view of dynamic systems theory, which provides a general approach to understanding processes of change and emergence.


Since the early 1990s, developmental psychologists have been exploring a new approach to describing, explaining, and understanding developmental pro-cesses – namely, dynamic systems theory (Thelen & Smith, 1994, 1998; van Geert, 1994, 2003). Dynamic systems theory offers a natural and intuitive approach to such processes. It emphasizes the actual development as it takes place in real time. It explicitly accounts for each step in the process as the direct outcome of the preceding step. It focuses on mutual interactions between variables – that is, forces or components that affect one another. A major feature of dynamic systems thinking is its emphasis on the ubiquitousness of self-organization (Lewis & Granic, 1999).

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