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Elizabeth Bates (July 26, 1947 – December 13, 2003) was a Professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of California, San Diegomarker. She was an internationally-renowned expert and leading researcher in child language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and the neurological bases of language, and she authored 10 books and over 200 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on these subjects. Bates was well-known for her assertion that linguistic knowledge is distributed throughout the brain and is subserved by general cognitive and neurological processes.


Bates earned a B.A. from St. Louis Universitymarker in 1968, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in human development from the University of Chicagomarker in 1971 and 1974, respectively.

She was employed as a tenure-track professor at the University of Coloradomarker from 1974-1981 before joining the faculty of the University of California, San Diegomarker, where she worked until 2002. Bates was one of the founders of the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD, the first department of its kind in the USA. She was also the director of the UCSD Center of Research in Language and the co-director of the San Diego State Universitymarker/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Language and Communication Disorders. Bates also served as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeleymarker in 1976-1977 and at the National Research Council Institute of Psychology in Rome on a regular basis.


Bates died at age 56 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her husband and daughter, George and Julia Carnevale.


The Elizabeth Bates Graduate Research Fund was established at UCSD in her memory to assist graduate students' research.


In general terms, Bates was an authority on how the brain processes language. More specifically, Bates' research focused on child language acquisition, cross-linguistic language processing, and aphasia, investigating the cognitive, neural, and social factors subserving these processes. Through her research, Bates demonstrated that neural plasticity allows children with trauma to Broca's and Wernicke's areas to learn and use language normally.

Some of Bates's other major contributions included demonstrating that distinct characteristics of different languages determine the way that the brain organizes this information and incorporates it during development, adulthood, and in cases of disease, and illuminating the profound and lasting links between language and evolutionarily more ancient non-linguistic skills. With Brian MacWhinney, Bates developed a model of language processing called the Competition Model, which views language acquisition as an emergentist phenomenon that results from competition between lexical items, phonological forms, and syntactic patterns, accounting for language processing on the synchronic, ontogenetic, and phylogenetic time scales.

Bates was well-known for her belief that linguistic knowledge is distributed throughout the brain, rather than in one center for language development, and that language is dependent upon basic cognitive processes such as memory, pattern recognition, and spreading activation. This perspective runs counter to the theory of Noam Chomsky, Eric Lenneberg, and Steven Pinker that language is a special stimulus that is processed by a specialized language module in the mind, which can be localized to Broca's and Wernicke's areas.

Frequent sparring between the two sides, one based in California, the other in Massachusetts, led to the aphorism that much of cognitive neuroscience lay within the dynamic pull of a west pole and an east pole. Jeffrey Elman, a colleague of Bates, called her the "queen of the west pole".

Honors and Awards

  • Boyd R. McCandless Distinguished Young Scientist Award Division 7, American Psychological Association, 1979
  • John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, 1981
  • Fellow-Elect, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1983
  • Honorary Rene Descartes Doctorate, University of Parismarker, 1992
  • Honorary Doctorate, New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgariamarker, 1997


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