More Than Words: The Role of Multiword Sequences in Language Learning and Use

Topics in Cognitive Science 9 (3):542-551 (2017)
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The ability to convey our thoughts using an infinite number of linguistic expressions is one of the hallmarks of human language. Understanding the nature of the psychological mechanisms and representations that give rise to this unique productivity is a fundamental goal for the cognitive sciences. A long-standing hypothesis is that single words and rules form the basic building blocks of linguistic productivity, with multiword sequences being treated as units only in peripheral cases such as idioms. The new millennium, however, has seen a shift toward construing multiword linguistic units not as linguistic rarities, but as important building blocks for language acquisition and processing. This shift—which originated within theoretical approaches that emphasize language learning and use—has far-reaching implications for theories of language representation, processing, and acquisition. Incorporating multiword units as integral building blocks blurs the distinction between grammar and lexicon; calls for models of production and comprehension that can accommodate and give rise to the effect of multiword information on processing; and highlights the importance of such units to learning. In this special topic, we bring together cutting-edge work on multiword sequences in theoretical linguistics, first-language acquisition, psycholinguistics, computational modeling, and second-language learning to present a comprehensive overview of the prominence and importance of such units in language, their possible role in explaining differences between first- and second-language learning, and the challenges the combined findings pose for theories of language.



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