Date: Fri, 27 Feb 2004 14:52:58 +0200 From: Dr. Despina Papadopoulou Subject: The Language of Children
AUTHOR: Gillen, Julia TITLE: The Language of Children SERIES: Intertext PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2003
Despina Papadopoulou, Cyprus College
Julia Gillen's book "The Language of Children" is part of the Inter- text series, whose aim is to provide students with accessible textbooks on text analysis, and is mainly addressed to students who have an interest on language and communication. Gillen's main purpose is to describe the written as well as the spoken language children use to communicate and express themselves. In doing so she adopts a sociocultural perspective and tries to explain the children's productions in terms of their interaction with the socio-cultural environment.
The contents of the book are divided into six units. The author also provides ideas about projects that the students could carry on in the future, suggestions for further reading and an index of the main terms used in the book along with their definitions. The first unit sketches the aim of the book, which is to familiarize the students with the language used by children. Gillen specifies that she will focus on the communicative practices and the diversity of children's language. Moreover, the author makes it clear that she will depart from the nativist view on first language acquisition, because she considers it simplistic in that it ignores the socio-cultural effects on the children's language. The author also provides a number of speech samples from either monolingual or bilingual children in naturalistic contexts in order to show that children are able to detect language parts that contribute to the communication, like openings and endings.
Unit two is concerned with two topics: the description of some properties of the written language produced by children and, the multimodality in children's attempts to communicate. With respect to the first topic, Gillen observes that the children's writing abilities evolve gradually and are affected by socio-cultural perspectives. In addition, even very young children seem to be aware of some conventions about the presentation of written texts, like the positioning of the title at the beginning of the text. Moreover, the children's written texts show awareness of the existence of various genres and some kind of understanding of the techniques used in those genres, for example in narratives. With respect to the issue of multimodality, Gillen shows how children use images together with words in order to make their messages better understood.
In the third unit, Gillen explores the importance of play for child speech. The author provides many spontaneous speech samples along with descriptions of the contextual circumstances, in which the speech samples were produced, in order to show the effect of both the play and the communicative event on child speech. By analysing all those speech samples, which involve sociodramatic play among children, Gillen draws the conclusion that very early in life children display features of communicative competence, like awareness of openings, closings and turn-takings in conversations.
The fourth unit explores certain characteristics of the early words children produce and the way kids learn new words. With respect to the way early words are pronounced, Gillen points out that pronunciation is simplified and that children tend to use syllabic reduplications. In addition, children use words to express particular kinds of interactions and they often use one word in order to denote the meaning of a whole phrase or even sentence (holophrastic utterance). Underextension - that children might not be able to extend the use of a particular word to a similar set of objects - and overextension - that they might erroneously assume that a word applies to all objects of the same category - also illustrate two properties of the child early vocabulary. Gillen notices two factors that help word learning: cultural relatedness and repetition. The social sense of memory, that is the associations formed between certain words and their cultural and social meanings, also plays an important role in word learning. Furthermore, social language routines, like greetings, or rhymes help children acquire new words. In contrast, Gillen emphasizes that the "object-point-label" has been overestimated and it is not sufficient to account for the way children acquire vocabulary.
In unit five, Gillen describes the early communication development in infants before language emerges. Gillen provides the stages the children go through (i. e. cooing, vocal play, babbling) before they start producing word combinations. The author points out that infants are able to recognize phonemes of their language and that they have an innate predisposition towards turn-taking. She also stresses the fact that early interactions with children are important and encourage children to produce speech.
In the sixth unit, the author presents three theories for first language acquisition, namely the sociocultural, cognitivist and nativist theories. The sociocultural approach to language development assumes that children are genetically predisposed to communicate with others, that sociocultural factors are important in language acquisition and that children are active learners, in the sense that "they organize their own learning" (Gillen, 2003: 80). Gillen also refers to Vygotsky's work on child language, which gives emphasis on the important role of culture in language acquisition and the way "children learn through observing, interpreting and participating in social practices" (Gillen, 2003: 85). In addition, Vygotsky paid attention to children's private speech and considered it as being an instrument of solving problems.
According to Vygotsky, this "egocentric" speech of children is social from the very beginning, in that it is influenced by the surrounding conditions and it is often addressed to an audience, and later on in life leads to inner speech. Cognitivists also recognize that an essential part in language learning is what they call "discovery learning" and, following Jean Piaget, their aim is to explore the relationships between cognitive and language development. On the other hand, the nativist view on language acquisition supports that the input children are exposed to is not always grammatical or complete and, therefore, children must be equipped with a device that helps them acquire language. Based on Chomsky's idea about the existence of universal properties across different languages, researchers working in this framework assume that in their attempt to acquire their native languages children are aided by a language acquisition device, which incorporates the principles and the parameters of human languages. The environment they are exposed to triggers the operation of the language acquisition device and the adjustment of the Universal Grammar to the grammatical properties of their native language.
"The Language of Children" is a reader-friendly and accessible book, which provides the reader with an introduction to the language used by children. One of the advantages of this textbook is that it contains many spontaneous samples of child language, either written or oral, which helps the reader to actually see how child language looks like and make his/her own observations. In addition, the samples are presented in a clear way, in that the symbols used in the transcriptions are adequately explained and in that the context, in which the utterances were produced, is always provided, which helps the reader to form a clearer picture of the properties of the child language. Furthermore, another merit of this textbook is that each unit consists of several activities, which make the students not only think about certain issues relevant to child language development but also encourage them to analyze the samples provided and arrive at their own conclusions.
I would like to raise, however, two points: one is concerned with the way children acquire words and the second one is related to the theories for first language acquisition. In unit 4, in which Gillen discusses the properties of early words children use and the ways children learn new words, she does not mention certain biases that help children infer the word meaning, like the taxonomic bias or the mutual exclusivity bias (Guasti, 2002: 74-80). In addition, I think the author could have stressed the fact that word learning might be different from other aspects of language development, like phonology, morphology and syntax (see for example Markson & Bloom, 2001). With respect to the theories about child language development, they are presented in an accessible way. However, I think these theories should have been mentioned at the beginning of the book and at the last unit the author could refer back to them and discuss them in the light of the data she presented throughout the book.
Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that Gillen makes it clear from the very beginning of the book that she will focus on the sociocultural aspects of child communication and she keeps this promise, as she refers to Vygotsky's theory and to social effects on language acquisition in different parts of the book when analyzing the data. However, on my point of view she makes an injustice to the nativist view, in that she claims that it is a "deficit model" (Gillen, 2003: 3), since it is emphasized on "what children can't do" (Gillen, 2003: 3). And elsewhere she maintains that according to the nativist view first language acquisition departs "from nowhere to the ideal" (Gillen, 2003: 7). I think that these two points are not accurate descriptions of the nativist theory about child language acquisition. My understanding of this theory is that, on the contrary, it emphasizes on what children can do and that they do not start from nowhere but rather from the principles and parameters provided by Universal Grammar (see also Guasti, 2002: 17-21). Hence, Gillen could have only focused on the different perspectives the socio-cultural and the nativist theories have towards child language acquisition: the nativist model is concerned with the grammatical development per se, whereas the socio- cultural view seeks to investigate the complexity and diversity of child communication and its interaction with socio-cultural factors.
In general, this is a good introductory book to child language with emphasis on socio-cultural approaches and it gives the reader the opportunity to access real data and to reflect about the way children communicate.
REFERENCES Guasti, Maria Teresa (2002) Language Acquisition. The growth of Grammar. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.
Markson, Lori & Bloom, Paul (2001) Evidence Against a Dedicated System for Word Learning in Children, ed. by Michael Tomasello and Elizabeth Bates, pp. 129-133. Language Development. Blackwell Publishing.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER I did my BA on Linguistics and my MA on Teaching Greek as a Foreign Language at the University of Athens. I also did an MA on Language Acquisitionat the University of essex. I did my Ph. D. on Sentence Processing at the University of Essex. At the moment I am an Assistant professor of Linguistics at Cyprus College, Nicosia, Cyprus. My research interests lie in the area of Psycholinguistics. More specifically, I have done some work on the way native speakers and second language learners process sentences. I want to further explore the differences between L1 and L2 sentence processing and to investigate whether native speakers rely more on grammatical cues to process sentences than L2 learners.