Cognitive Science Colloquium
The Now-or-Never Bottleneck: A Fundamental Constraint on Language
Morten H. Christiansen, Cornell University, Aarhus University, and Haskins Laboratory
Language happens in the here-and-now. Our memory for linguistic input is fleeting. New material rapidly obliterates previous material. How then can the brain deal successfully with the continual deluge of linguistic input? I argue that, to deal with this “Now-or-Never” bottleneck, the brain must incrementally compress and recode language input as rapidly as possible into increasingly more abstract of levels of linguistic representation. This perspective has profound implications for the nature of language processing, acquisition, and change. To illustrate, I present results from a chunk-based computational model of early syntactic acquisition and data from human experimentation. I conclude that the immediacy of language processing provides a fundamental constraint on accounts of language acquisition, implying that acquisition fundamentally involves learning to process, rather than inducing a grammar.