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What Is the Competition Model?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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The competition model is a theory that seeks to explain how individuals learn and process language. The outcome of competition between various thinking processes serves as a cornerstone of this theory. The mind is said to compare several different components of a sentence as a means of language development, for example. As a way of explaining their theory, creators Brian MacWhinney and Elizabeth Bates introduced several types of scales to illustrate the competition model.

Statistics and probability are major forces in the competition model. Certain factors affect the way a hearer processes a sentence, to the end that the sentence may have several possible interpretations. As the mind is processing a sentence or phrase, it is rapidly computing these different probabilities, often based on past experiences with similar sentence constructions and the grammatical rules taught for a given language. The mind settles upon the interpretation with the highest suitability for a given situation.

Each language may have a different set of probabilities for the same sentence or sentiment based on each language’s developed rules. Various linguistic aspects, such as word order or sounds, establish the probabilities and weighted possibilities of interpreting a sentence. Since various languages place divergent levels of importance on each linguistic concept, the overall probabilities for each potential interpretative outcome will likely be quite contrasting among languages. Language acquisition in the competition model begins when these competing probabilities are activated by cues and memory.

The competition model outlines several levels, or scales, at which language is interpreted. Synchronic scales detail basic word components that might give rise to competition — sounds and placement patterns, for example. When aspects of morphology, syntax, and other grammatical areas begin to interweave and interconnect in more complex ways, the ontogenic scale of competition is used. In contrast, the phylogenic scale considers the social aspects of language, examining how language was developed as a tool for individuals to compete in social and cultural hierarchies.

In essence, complex thinking processes act upon a complex environment in the competition model. The competitions model is unlike nativist theories that place more emphasis on innate genetic processes or empirical theories that value environmental influences such as teaching. Rather, the competition model views the process of understanding language as something like a sophisticated computer program. The brain gathers information that is seemingly meaningless to it and gives that information meaning through a process of cognitive computations.

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