Theoretical perspectives on language and communication problems in mental retardation and developmental disabilities

Leonard J Abbeduto, Julia Evans, Terrence Dolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


We argue that researchers interested in language and communication problems in mental retardation or any other developmental disorder should view such problems as emerging within the broader context of the behavioral profile, or phenotype, associated with a particular genetic condition. This will require understanding the direct and indirect effects of genes on the development of language and communication and thereby an understanding of the complex relations that exist between language and other dimensions of psychological and behavioral functioning as well as an understanding of the environments in which the developing person acts and is acted upon. We believe that the dominant model for understanding language and communication problems - the nativist approach, which emphasizes the child's innate capacity for acquiring language and characterizes language as consisting of a set of context-free deterministic rules that operate on abstract representations - is inconsistent with an emphasis on indirect genetic effects. We review recent evidence that undermines the nativist approach - evidence concerning the initial state of the language-learning child, the role of environmental input, the competence-performance distinction, and modularity. In place of nativism, we argue for Emergentism, which is a model in which language is seen to emerge from the interaction between the child's biological abilities to map statistical properties of the language input into a distributed representation and the characteristics of the language learning environment and for the purpose of engaging in real-time, meaningful language use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-55
Number of pages11
JournalMental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Emergentism
  • Fragile X
  • Language and communication problems
  • Nativism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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