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A paradigm is a schema or model that defines how a field or enterprise operates, or how one conceptualizes it. The scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn, in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, used the term to the set of beliefs, concepts and practices that define a scientific discipline (and at a particular period of time, but for now that is less important). He defined a scientific paradigm as a set of "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners." This includes the theory that scientists work in, the accompanying assumptions and goals of that theory, their research methods, and the philosophical assumptions behind those research methods. This concept is generally applied to the sciences, but this can be extended to understanding any academic field. Thus, the paradigm consists of the following elements, for those in a particular academic field:

  1. Ontology: What exists in their world; what is to be observed and analyzed
  2. Goals (teleology): the kind of questions that drive the research in the field; the questions that people ask and investigate, including the ultimate questions of the field
  3. Epistemology: How these questions are to be asked; how one can know and learn new things; how the questions are to be investigated
  4. Research: As a result of the epistemology, the kinds of research methods that are considered appropriate and legitimate; and how research results are interpreted and used;
  5. The predictions that are made by the major theory or theories within the discipline

Generally, a field goes through a process of normal research within an accepted theory, and researchers apply their theories to more predictions (hypotheses) and more situations. Occasionally, the theory may run into problems, prompting the development of a new, competing theory, which can spark a scientific revolution or paradigm shift in the field.

1 Paradigms in linguistics

If we extend the original scientific philosophical defnition of 'paradigm' from Kuhn's work, we can apply this to understanding any academic field thusly:

Academic paradigm
A conceptual framework for a whole field of study; a framework that defines the field and its objectives; this includes a particular theory or model that researchers work in, along with assumptions, values, goals, and beliefs that go along with the theory. This thus includes assumptions about what questions are important in the field, values, goals, and what exists (ontology) in the world of the researcher.

In linguistics and related fields, researchers approach questions of language from different paradigms, with different assumptions, beliefs, conceptualizations of language, goals, and types of research that are valued.

Different ideas of what language is, what study of language is about
  • an innate learning mechanism
  • a system of rules, or rule-like principles
  • social interaction and communication
  • a cognitive / psychological / biological ability

Different goals, e.g., researchers' focus on understanding...
  • cognitive mechanisms of language
  • language evolution
  • how to better teach & learn a second language
  • how first language acquisition occurs
  • abstract, theoretical descriptions and explanations of how language works in the mind

Different ontologies (what exists in the world of the researcher) and assumptions about language
  • cognitive linguistic systems that came from and/or interact with other cognitive faculties
  • a social, communicative phenomenon
  • a set of theoretical rules and derivations operating at some abstract mental level; language is seen as an independent cognitive faculty

Different epistemologies (how one studies and learns about the subject of study)
  • observational, descriptive, & ethnographic studies[1]
  • studies of corpus linguistic data
  • discourse studies
  • theoretical research
  • scientifically based research – surveys, psychological experiments, classroom experiments, etc.
  • qualitative studies of language learners, e.g., via interviews, observational studies, etc.

This leads to a number of different paradigms in the world of linguistics, which can be summarized as follows.

Generative (or "Chomskyan") linguistics

This approach focuses on language as an independent cognitive faculty, which can be accounted for by theoretical rules and derivations operating at some abstract mental level; abstract, theoretical descriptions and explanations of how language works in the mind. The research is often theoretical, and/or based on isolated sentences or utterances, and analyzing their grammaticality, reasons for grammaticality or ungrammaticality, and underlying principles. The goals are ultimately understanding how language works in the mind, its underlying abstract principles, and how children learn their first languages naturally.

An important variant of the generative approach is constraint based theories, namely, Optimality Theory, which shares the goals of generative linguistics, but focused on constraints instead of rules and derivations, and how those constraints interact with each other. This is essentially a blend of connectionism and generativism.

Cognitive linguistics

This approach focuses on language as a system that came from and interacts with other cognitive faculties, the cognitive mechanisms of language. The research is often scientifically based research, particularly psychological experiments or classroom experiments, often using quantitative or mixed methods research. Some cognitivists may lean in the direction of functionalist approaches, and others may lean more in the direction of generative approaches and assumptions.


Properly speaking, this is a subfield of psychology, and shares many assumptions with cognitive linguistics. The research almost entirely uses quantitative psychological research methods, or sometimes mixed methods. It is more scientifically oriented than others.


This is a subfield that developed out of psycholinguistics, and views language learning as respresented by neural connections, neural networks, and neural interactions. It is also more scientifically oriented, specifically, with a neurological, biological, or computational approach. Research is often done with computational models. It is less concerned with underlying abstract principles in the way that generativism is.


This approach views language as a social phenomenon, and focuses on social interaction and communication, rather than something that is just "in the head." As such, it bases its analysis of grammar on pragmatics and communicative principles. Research methods include observational, descriptive, and ethnographic studies, and qualitative studies of language learners, e.g., via interviews, observational studies.

Applied linguistics

This is a broad area that focuses on second language learning, and how to better teach and learn a second language. Different applied linguists may draw from any of the above approaches for their goals, assumptions, and research methods. Some engage in quantitative research, some use mixed methods research, and many are influenced by functionalist approaches and assumptions, and thus use qualitative methods (observational / ethnographic studies, interview studies, pragmatics, etc.).

2 See also

2.1 Notes

  1. Ethnographic refers to observing and analyzing groups of people and their behavior, e.g., an anthropologist studying a different people group, or an educational linguist observing and studying a language classroom.

2.2 References

  1. Kuhn, Thomas. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (2nd Edition) University of Chicago Press.