Language use is simpler than the ranked and stacked nests of meaning theory formerly described it as. Language use appears to be the ordered arrangement of equal sequential parts of meaning instead of the stacked nesting of unequal hierarchical parts. This means that language development and communication rests on stringing sequentially ordered groups of meaning together, something like writing music using chords–sequenced groups of individual notes that have unified meaning–instead of writing it note by note under an umbrella concept of “composition” without having knowledge of chords. This comparison illustrates sequential groups of meaning versus hierarchically stacked nested parts of meaning (picture nested Russian matryoshka, babushka dolls). These “simpler sequential structures” are also like a beaded necklace of strung together clusters of meaning, like clumped together units that have recognizable meaning, according to lead researcher Morten Christiansen of Cornell’s Cognitive Science Program.
An example given by Christiansen of these clumps, or “constructions,” of meaning is the common phrase “bread and butter.” This popularly recognizable phrase may theoretically represent one of these clumped constructions and it may have a sequential meaning that its reverse, “butter and bread,” does not have. Christiansen explains this by saying the research team is suggesting that “the language system deals with words by grouping them into little clumps that are then associated with meaning.” It is significant that these clump constructs have been found to be sequential.
Language development and communication is naturally sequential since language operates in a sequence of time and a sequence of context. We speak in the present and talk of temporal sequences that we denote by such expressions as “before” “then” “after” and “while.” We talk about temporal chronology of present, past and future, although the cluster is probably “past, present, and future.” We also speak in contextual sequences of settings and turn taking: e.g., a sequence of varying locations and gesticulations; a sequence of what was said before by whom; a sequence of varying intention in what was said. This temporal and contextual sequencing is complementary to the sequential clump construction model whereas it is not complementary to the old hierarchical nesting of lesser parts within greater parts model of language sentence structure.
Two new sequence related results from cognitive neuroscience and psycholinguistic science confirm the simpler sequential clump construction model. The first is that sequential learning (e.g., memorize the sequence of events) and language are both processed in the same brain region. This strongly suggests the role of sequencing in language structuring. The second is that the skill with which a person learns sequencing tasks predicts how well the person understands and uses language: if you struggle with sequencing events or actions, you will struggle with understanding language.
Results from the Christiansen team will have significance for language development research as well as for learning and teaching second languages. It will also have significance for how language learning pedagogy is taught in universities like the University of California at Santa Barbara. Situational application of the sequencing clump construct model may even affect the ease with which students meet the second language requirements at UCSB.