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Driving a wedge between communication and language learning in autism

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There will be a coffee reception from 4pm.

The role played by the linguistic input in language acquisition is one of the most debated topics in cognitive sciences. Nativist approaches hold that the structural properties of the language input trigger innate linguistic knowledge. Contrasting constructivist models posit that an inborn drive to communicate prompts children to gradually learn language structures from communicative experience. This foundational tension between nativism and constructivism may be illuminated by—but also illuminating for—language learning in autism. Autism is characterized by life-long socio-pragmatic difficulties, which inherently compromise access to the communicative function of language. A significant proportion of autistic children also develop receptive and expressive language with a considerable delay or fail to reach functional verbal communication altogether. Dominant conceptions of language in autism, as well as most intervention programs, are inspired by constructivist theories and presuppose that enriching early joint attention and communicative skills is crucial to improving language outcomes. However, there is little evidence that improvement in language levels in autism is predicted by fading difficulties in processing social stimuli. While active communicative experience is essential for language acquisition in typically developing children, there are intriguing indications that autistic individuals may learn language from non-communicative exposure to linguistic material. This non-interactive language learning processes centers much more on internal, structural properties of the linguistic input than on the intersubjective linguistic interaction.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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