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Buzzsaws and blueprints: what children need (or don't need) to learn language

  • MARK A. SABBAGH (a1) and SUSAN A. GELMAN (a1)


Review essay on: B. MACWHINNEY (ed.), The emergence of language. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1999.

An old joke that has been circulating for the past decade or so goes as follows: a biologist, a physicist, and a cognitive scientist were sitting around discussing the great achievements of their fields. The biologist waxed eloquent about the insights of Darwin's theory of evolution; the physicist expounded on the implications of Einstein's theory of general relativity. Then the cognitive scientist spoke up: ‘Our great discovery is the thermos. You put a cold drink in, the drink stays cold. You fill it with hot soup, the soup stays hot. This is amazing, for how does the thermos know?’

Obviously, this cognitive scientist has asked the wrong question about how the thermos maintains temperatures. In The emergence of language (henceforth, EL), an edited collection of chapters authored by an interdisciplinary group of computer scientists, linguists, and cognitive and developmental psychologists, it is suggested that perhaps language acquisition researchers have been making the same mistake as the errant cognitive scientist. To be sure, language is an extremely complex phenomenon, yet it is also elegant. Recognition of these characteristics in all aspects of language (thanks in large part to Chomskyan approaches to linguistics) highlights a well-known apparent paradox: language is hopelessly complex but children acquire it with ease. Solutions to this paradox have typically inspired researchers to posit rules or other kinds of blueprints – knowledge (innate or acquired) that children have to guide their language acquisition. But are these rules truly necessary? Perhaps children do not KNOW how to acquire language any more than a thermos knows how to maintain temperature.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Mark A. Sabbagh or Susan A. Gelman, Developmental Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 E. University Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109, USA. e-mail: or


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We thank Dale Barr and Marilyn Shatz for helpful and insightful comments on a previous draft of this manuscript.


Buzzsaws and blueprints: what children need (or don't need) to learn language

  • MARK A. SABBAGH (a1) and SUSAN A. GELMAN (a1)


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