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Implications for the World Language Process

A Critique of:
David Lightfoot's Book
How New Languages Emerge
Jonathan B. Britten
Nakamura University
Japan Chancellor, World Language Process

Nakamura University
5-7-1 Befu, Jonan-ku
Fukuoka, 814-0104
[email protected]

With his call for a “new historical linguistics,” David Lightfoot points toward an enormous, largely unexplored academic territory in which, I contend, pioneering general linguists will meet with scholars of World Englishes and the World Language Process who have already staked out a few claims. Lightfoot’s call for this new linguistics concludes his remarkable new book, How New Languages Emerge (Lightfoot 2006).

In this book, lauded by no less an authority than Noam Chomsky, Lightfoot explores the concepts of internal and external languages and the ways in which these interact with Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG). For the purposes of my essay, Lightfoot’s interest in “creolization” is of particular interest. His discussion of creolization suggests that his research goals are inextricably linked to those of World Language Process (WLP) researchers, particularly Alexander (Alexander 2006), and Britten (Britten 2005).

I purchased Lightfoot’s book in hopes of finding practical techniques that WLP volunteers could use to accelerate co-evolutionary language change. I hoped to exploit Lightfoot’s studies of childhood cue-based development of internal language (IL) based on (UG) processing of external language (EL). These studies, I thought, might provide clues as to how childhood language learning can be applied to the World Language Program (WLP). To my considerable surprise, however, Lightfoot has the reverse goal: he wants to study new language emergence in order to understand the cue-based process itself.

Eventually, approaching the topic from both ends simultaneously may turn out to be fruitful and mutually beneficial, even symbiotic. One thing is certain: whichever way one approaches the study of new languages, Lightfoot’s manifesto for “historical linguists” implies that there are many opportunities for collaboration between historical linguists and scholars of World Englishes (WE) and the WLP. Although Lightfoot is conversant with WE studies (which he mentions briefly in his first chapter), he had had not, until our recent brief correspondence, been aware of the WLP. I hope that this essay is useful in describing to him, and to scholars who follow his work, some areas of potentially fruitful collaboration.

An overview of Lightfoot’s new book will help outline the potential for such collaboration. Some of the meticulously detailed historical examples in Lightfoot’s book may be somewhat ponderous for non-specialists, but the basic points are readily accessible to anyone familiar with basic linguistics concepts, including Chomsky’s UG. Apropos WE and the WLP, Lightfoot’s final two chapters, “The eruption of new grammars” and “A new historical linguistics” are the most directly pertinent. For WE and WLP scholars and students, it is perfectly reasonable to read these chapters first, followed by the preface and the particularly accessible first chapter.

Specialists in language acquisition, variation, and change are the linguists most likely to appreciate chapters two through six, in which Lightfoot discusses the inter-related roles of “internal language” (IL) and “external language,”(EL), and their relationship to Universal Grammar (UG.) I will briefly quote Lightfoot’s own summary of these topics.

“Internal languages are systems that emerge in children according to the dictates of the language capacity and to the demands of the external language to which they are exposed. Internal languages or grammars . . . are properties of individual brains, while external language is a group phenomenon, the cumulative effects of a range of internal languages and their uses . . . (Lightfoot 2006 p. 7) . . . Children acquire I-language systems that go far beyond the external language that they experience and that happens on an everyday basis in every child. Sometimes it happens more dramatically, when children are exposed to modestly different E-language experiences which, although only modestly different, trigger a new grammar; in that event, the new generation speaks differently from their parents. And sometimes it happens much more dramatically, when children acquire systems that generate data spectacularly different from what they experienced. This is when new productive systems emerge out of fragmentary experiences and the first stages of a “creole” language appear. We have gained new insight into this process in recent years through the study of new signed languages emerging under conditions similar to those of new creoles (chapter seven.) In each of these cases, we have new languages.” (p. 15)

From a WLP perspective, the idea of “spectacularly different” new grammars is provocative, insofar as such grammars could potentially greatly accelerate UAL development. This would be particularly important if the UAL were to derive from an English substrate, yet diverge sufficiently from that substrate to represent a genuinely universal tongue acceptable to all the world’s peoples.

Antony Alexander, a leading thinker about UAL development and a leading member of the WLP, has written extensively about the process of creolization and language organization. . (Alexander 2006, Alexander and Craig 1998). Alexander is keenly alert to the emotional and subjective factors in language change, and in particular global awareness of the ugly aspects of linguistic imperialism, particularly under the current American regime. His flexible, evolving, and pragmatic writings about language organization and change already incorporate some aspects of Lightfoot’s approach. As Lightfoot has made clear, the only way to understand these processes of language change is to go far beyond the traditional historical linguistics that occupy many experts, and has he has said, his own goals “are not modest.” The same can be said of the WLP, which looks forward to all the peoples of the world sharing a world language or a UAL, very possibly derived from the very processes of creolization that so interest Lightfoot.

For the purposes of the WLP, the most relevant part of Lightfoot’s new book is chapter seven, which focuses almost entirely on creoles. Lightfoot refers to the study of “creolistics” (p. 140) as one incorporating a wide range of sometimes conflicting views. Some linguists, he notes, consider creolistics as a very exceptional kind of linguistic study, an idea I, like Lightfoot, do not consider to be correct, even though creoles are typically acquired under heterogenous circumstances quite different from those of persons who learn only their uniform, homogenous native language.

My own concept of accelerated co-evolution of a Universal Auxiliary Language is predicated on a perception shared with Lightfoot: that creolization is not fundamentally distinct from other language learning, and that the process of UAL co-evolution can be somewhat akin to that of various ethnic groups thrown together and obliged to develop a working pidgin, which turns into a full-fledged creole language in time. Further, it is clear that Lightfoot (p. 141) hopes the study of rapid creolization can lead to a better understanding of the ways in which E-language forms I-language.

As I mentioned earlier, I had been hoping that Lightfoot’s understanding of this process would be useful in promoting a UAL. It may turn out that collaboration could serve both functions, which are inextricably linked. Perhaps the best single explication of the possible grounds for collaboration can be found in Alexander’s proposal of a process of “universal creolization” as one stage in the development of a UL (Alexander, 2006).

I find it particularly interesting that Alexander’s “LangX” concept proposes focusing on vocabulary – making a list of certain key words common to all languages – rather than grammar. Although I have only begun to explore the relationship between the ideas of Lightfoot and Alexander, it seems clear to me that Alexander’s ideas are at least partially in keeping with Lightfoot’s focus on the role of E-language in changing I-language and thus sparking language change. Alexander calls specifically for the following:

Three Stages to a Universal Language:

[1] Global Vocabulary or “Global Contact Language”

[2] International Auxiliary Language or “International Pidgin”

[3] Very Slow and Gradual Transformation to a Single World Language or “Universal Creolisation.”

However, the IAL has indeed had successful precedents or prototypes, albeit on a localised scale. These have been the various pidgins and creoles that have arisen during past centuries. Robert Craig and I provided some background information in Chapter 12 of Lango. Since contact languages, pidgins and creoles have really been stages in the same localised IAL developments, I have lately referred to the sequence as the contact language ~ pidgin ~ creole progression (CPCP). The essentials of the CPCP might be summarised as follows:

Contact languages have arisen where typical non-linguists such as fishermen and whalers, or soldiers and civilians, from very different cultures have found it convenient to attempt to communicate verbally.

Historically, what has emerged in such circumstances has been less a complete language than a lexicon of common words, with grammar provided by sign language and the immediate context. Contact languages have usually disappeared along with the conditions that gave rise to them.

Lightfoot raises some interesting points about the development of language in children, and in particular the well-known period of childhood during which children are known to uniquely capable of learning. This is, frankly, a field about which I know too little, and regrettably, there is too little information in Lightfoot’s new book about this topic. Lightfoot writes that we “know that grammars are acquired in the first few years of life and that is the fact that has had the greatest influence on what we have learned about grammars over the past fifty years . . .. we have learned most about grammars so far from the fact that they distinguish well-formed from ill-formed structures, matching well-formed structures to appropriate meanings (logical forms), and from the fact that they are acquired by children in the first few years of life on exposure to some initial experiences.” (p. 43).

Regrettably, given my limited background in this field, the full implications of this statement on the WLP are unclear to me, but I am particularly intrigued by Lightfoot’s subsequent focus on remarkable developments of new languages among the signing community in certain countries. There is no contradiction in what Lightfoot has written, but there are some extremely interesting questions raised by his observations. One that comes immediately to mind is whether the childhood window can be reopened through innovative methods of approaching language learning, and whether such novel methods might be applied to accelerating a UAL. Another, much more obvious question, is simply to what extent UAL proponents can take advantage of the early childhood window, particularly if given the cooperation of educators in countries throughout the world. For example, the E-language influence in I-Language that Lightfoot describes, if combined with Alexander’s thoughts about creoliztion and the WLP, might work symbiotically when applied to the education of young children. Moreover, if such collaboration were to produce faster, more effective, and more widespread UAL education and evolution, it would free up more time for preservation of endangered languages, an important concern of both Lightfoot and WLP researchers.

Lightfoot has written:

People have their own internal system, a grammar, which develops in them in the first few years of life as a result of an interaction between genetic factors common to the species and environmental variation in primary linguistic data. Such a grammar represents the person’s linguistic range, the kind of things that the person might say and how he/she may say them. If they hear different things, children may converge on a different system, a new grammar, perhaps the first instance of a particular, new I-language. We want to find out what triggers which aspect of a person’s I-language, therefore how new I-languages might emerge . . . (p.12) . . . Children acquire I-language systems that go far beyond the extended language that they experience and that happens on an everyday basis in every child. Sometimes it happens more dramatically, when children are exposed to modestly different E-language experiences which, though only modestly different, trigger a new grammar; in that event, the new generation speaks differently from their parents. And sometimes it happens much more dramatically, when children acquire systems that generate data spectacularly different from what they experienced. This is when new productive systems emerge out of fragmentary experiences and the first stages of a “creole” language appear. We have gained new insight into this process in recent years through the study of new signed languages . . . (p. 15)

Again, the full implications of Lightfoot’s observations are not yet clear to me, but it’s clear that they point toward a new territory on which diverse linguistic pioneers can meet, and which they can cultivate and expand for decades to come.

As a one-time student of physiological psychology, I was keenly interested in Lightfoot’s emphasis on the neurology of the processes he describes, and his sense of “obligation” of the learning process as children analyze outside E-language cues to build their internal language world. Persons interested in the WLP need to pay particular attention to this.

This [cue-based] approach assumes that children are obligated to process speech. There is nothing voluntary here, any more than people can decide whether to see. Children are exposed to a visual world and react to horizontal lines, edges, and the other primitives of current work, and come to see in the way they do. Similarly, children process speech, driven to assign syntactic, morphological, phonological, etc. representations, using context, lexical knowledge, and the structures already existing in their grammar . . . The insight behind cue-based learning is that brains make certain structures, cues, available for interpreting what a person experiences. That is the role of the brain in learning, the contribution of the organism to the processing of experience. Sometimes we can see that role particularly clearly when the outside world becomes different. (p. 86)

Because Lightfoot has made clear, in several very detailed analyses of language change, that even small E-language changes can produce large changes in I-language, and in turn lasting changes to E-language, we can readily see that a UAL can come out of natural changes already occurring within the “global village” Marshall McLuhan described long ago. Small I-language changes occurring through the Internet, for example, may have a great influence on an emerging creolization process among those persons who have access to new technology. Now, even in relatively poor countries, such access is rapidly expanding through the power of small, inexpensive cell phones.

As Lightfoot has noted, dramatic social changes can produce even greater and more rapid language change. Right now, people worldwide are facing global dangers of staggering magnitude, among them global climate change, nuclear proliferation, threats of bioterrorism and natural pandemic, just to name a few. I contend that the rapid development of an effective UAL is a crucial tool for expanded education needed to deal with the changes underway now. It seems to me best that orderly and rapid WLP development is of enormous importance, and had best occur in conjunction with large-scale changes, rather than occurring in the aftermath of such changes.

In personal correspondence, Lightfoot has pointed out his belief that any UAL that may arise will be subject to the process of diversification, and I would agree that to some extent this is inevitable. I would contend, however, that the enormous social utility of a UAL would prevent any such diversification from leading to problems with shared intelligibility. Moreover, I would argue that the expanding global village can reduce the factors that contribute to that diversification process.

I would further argue that with support of governments throughout the world, and with the collaboration of the WLP Chancellors (there are now 32 worldwide), the WLP has a very good chance of being sustaining a solid, accepted “standard” form, in much the same way as modern English is maintained for maximum mutual intelligibility, despite the evident and much-discussed diversification of World Englishes. The steadily growing accepted global standard for “academic English” is a compelling piece of evidence that such a standard is indeed possible for the WLP. With the cooperation of linguists such as Lightfoot, and others who embrace his call for a “new historical linguistics,” we may learn in the coming decades whether the ideas expressed in this essay are supported by evidence from the rapidly changing world around us.

Opportunities for collaboration abound. For example, Alexander is keenly interested in two Asian UAL proposals, “Unish” from South Korea, and “Noxilo” from Japan. (see Langmaker.com 2006). Alexander is particularly interested in the former, which corresponds most closely to his LangX hypothesis. His focus on Unish, if supplemented by Lightfoot’s expertise, and supported by the “top down/bottom up” corpus linguistics paradigm of Britten, could point the way toward a greatly accelerated co-evolutionary development of a true world language.


Alexander, A. (2006) LangX – A New Approach to the International Auxiliary Language (IAL). Online references retrieved 1 October 2006 from http://worldlanguageprocess.com/essays/LangX/towards.htm

Alexander, A. and Craig, R. LANGO: A Fully Democratic Approach Towards An International Auxiliary Language Initially Based on Reformed English. Online reference retrieved 1 October 2006 from http://worldlanguageprocess.com/essays/lango/langoa.htm

Britten, J. (2005). A New Tool for the World Language Process: Accelerated Co-evolution of a Universal Auxiliary Language by Corpus Linguistic Analysis of World Englishes. Bulletin of Nakamura Gakuen University and Nakamura Gakuen University Junior College, Number 37, March, 2006, pp. 39-45, and online reference retrieved 1 October 2006 from http://worldlanguageprocess.com/essays/corpus.htm

Cambridge Learner Corpus (2006) Various online references retrieved 28 September 2006 from http://www.cambridge.org/elt/corpus/learner_corpus.htm

Global English Monitor Corpus (2001). Various online references retrieved 14 September 2006 from http://www.corpus.bham.ac.uk/ccl/global.htm

International Corpus of English (2000). Various online references retrieved 14 September 2006 from http://www.mpi.nl/world/ISLE/overview/Overview_ICE.html

Langmaker.com (2006) Online references retrieved 5 October 2006 from http://www.langmaker.com/db/Noxilo and http://www.langmaker.com/db/Mdl_unish.htm

Lightfoot, David (2006). How New Languages Emerge. New York, Cambridge University Press.

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