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How do we acquire meaning: the bottleneck hypothesis

Watch this video on how we acquire meaning. The Bottleneck hypothesis is a theory proposed by the Applied Linguistics Professor Roumiana Slavakova.
PROFESSOR ROUMYANA SLABAKOVA: How are meanings acquired? When learning a second language, it’s actually four separate acquisition tasks that we are looking at. First, we’ll need to learn the lexical items. You cannot speak a language without its words. Now, learning the grammatical endings is qualitatively different. Once a person learns that the -ed ending of the verb means past tense, the learner knows it as a rule, and she can apply it to all the regular verbs.
The rules of putting together sentences to create messages are essentially the same for all languages. Although lexical items take time to learn and have to be memorised one by one, grammatical word endings are actually the hardest to learn. They may be repeated in sentence after sentence, but they carry a lot of linguistic information. I have proposed the bottleneck hypothesis to explain what is hard and what is easy in second language learning. This picture illustrates the bottleneck hypothesis. In the picture, you see two bottles. One bottle is supposed to illustrate your native grammar, the one on the left.
When you try to use the same grammar, and the other bits and pieces of rules that you have learned in the second language, then you go to the bottle on the right and you try to use this knowledge, that is, spill some of the beads in the cup. And you see that they cannot come out as fast as they can. There is a bottleneck. This picture illustrates that even if you have a lot of knowledge of the second language, the tight place through which it all comes pouring out are the little words and the word endings with grammatical meaning. We call these parts of words grammatical or functional morphemes. Without those morphemes, sentences do not work.
You may not learn all of this information at the same time. It may be coming one bit after another. But you need all of that information in order to be able to produce and to understand a good, acceptable English sentence.

In this video, Roumyana Slabakova begins to consider what is hard and what is easy in learning a second language.

She starts out by considering the more problematic aspects of language learning and she suggests her own hypothesis – ‘the bottleneck hypothesis’ for helping us to understand how humans acquire meaning in language.

When you have posted your comments, have a look at the extra resources at the bottom of this page.

What do you think about this hypothesis? Does it seem to fit your own experience of language learning?
Remember to read and reply to other learners’ comments. Do you agree with the other opinions expressed?


Roumyana published a book about her hypothesis in 2016. It is called Second Language Acquisition and is published by Oxford University Press as part of their Oxford Core Linguistics series. This link takes you to the book on

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