Usage-Based Language: Investigating the Latent Structures That Underpin Acquisition


  • We thank Katie Erbach, Mary Smith, Lucy Zhao, Gin Corden, Danny Tsu-yu Wu, Liam Considine, Jerry Orlowski, and Sarah Garvey for help in the design, data collection, and analysis of these data. We also thank the University of Michigan LSA Scholarship/Research funding opportunity for supporting the project “Piloting the development of an inventory of usage of English verb grammar.”

Nick Ellis, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 3215 East Hall, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043. E-mail:


Each of us as language learners had different language experiences, yet somehow we have converged upon broadly the same language system. From diverse, often noisy samples, we have attained similar linguistic competence. How so? What mechanisms channel language acquisition? Could our linguistic commonalities possibly have converged from our shared psychology of learning as applied to the evidence of similar-enough language experience? This article outlines a research program to investigate whether there are sufficient constraints in the dynamics of language to promote robust induction by means of statistical learning over limited samples. It illustrates the approach with regard to English verbs, their grammatical form, semantics, and Zipfian patterns of usage. It explores the emergence of structure from experience using methods from cognitive linguistics, corpus linguistics, learning theory, complex systems, and network science.