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Review of  Language Acquisition


Reviewer: Julie Bruch
Book Title: Language Acquisition
Book Author: Maria Teresa Guasti
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Book Announcement: 15.1698

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Date: Wed, 02 Jun 2004 00:14:01 +0000
From: Julie Bruch <juliebruch@hotmail.com>
Subject: Language Acquisition: The Growth of Grammar

AUTHOR: Guasti, Maria Teresa
TITLE: Language Acquisition (paperback ed.)
SUBTITLE: The Growth of Grammar
SERIES: Bradford Books
PUBLISHER: MIT Press
YEAR: 2004
ISBN: 0262572206

Julie Bruch, Mesa State College

OVERVIEW
The author of ''Language Acquisition'' indicates that this text is
intended for use by upper-division undergraduate students or graduate
students of child language acquisition, and as a reference for
researchers who wish to update their knowledge of current research in
the field. She does not specify the range of fields of studies for
which this text is appropriate, but I believe that because of its
rather technical nature, it is more fitting for students and
researchers of linguistics and linguistics sub-fields than for those
in fields such as human growth and development. The author suggests
that general knowledge of basic linguistics is sufficient background
for understanding the data and theories discussed. This may be true
to a degree. The author attempts to fill in gaps by summarizing
relevant background concepts before the main discussion in each
chapter, and she provides a helpful list of abbreviations and a
glossary at the end of the book. The style in which this text is
written is sophisticated and intellectually challenging enough for
readers familiar with the field, yet at the same time, the author
maintains clarity by careful reiteration of important ideas, such
that readers who are less experienced in linguistics can follow her
arguments. I found, however, that in order for readers to fully
understand and benefit from the material, more extensive linguistics
coursework prior to using the book would be helpful (particularly in
syntactic theory).

Guasti has integrated several pedagogical helps into her book, which
I believe add immensely to its usefulness as a text and to its
overall interest. In addition to the chapter initial outlines, she
has included ''intermediate summaries,'' and final summaries in each
chapter to assist readers in checking their comprehension of her main
points throughout the reading. The chapter final summaries of
linguistic milestones and lists of key words are also useful
quick-references. The suggestions for further reading and study
questions after each chapter are carefully organized and will help
students not only to fully understand the chapter but also to learn
to design and carry out their own research.

The book is organized into eleven chapters that cover aspects of
language acquisition from birth through the age of about five or
six. As the title of Chapter 1 (''Basic Concepts'') indicates, this
chapter lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. It provides
theoretical foundations for research in child language acquisition,
including: an outline of hypotheses about language acquisition which
have led up to current thought and research, definitions of key
concepts such as the notions of ''grammar'' and ''constraints,'' and
mention of the ''logical problem of language acquisition,'' which
introduces the questions that the book will try to answer. The
chapter ends by characterizing language as an innate behavior and
discussing the relevance of the critical period.

Chapter 2 ''First Steps into Language'' discusses the development of
phonological knowledge in language, addressing both discrimination
and production. Rather than simply outlining the progression of
production of language sounds as the stages of cooing, babbling,
etc., as is done is many texts, Guasti thoroughly documents first how
babies begin to discriminate the sounds of their language and shows
how this type of data is gathered. She refers back to the ideas
presented in Chapter 1 regarding innateness, universal grammar (UG)
and mental representations. She makes reference to the babbling of
deaf infants as a means of supporting her generalizations about
phoneme acquisition.

Chapter 3 ''Acquisition of the Lexicon'' transitions smoothly from
the discussion of acquisition of sounds to acquisition of words by
examining the concept of ''phonological bootstrapping,'' and the
chapter ends with the suggestion that children can subsequently use
lexicon to bootstrap into syntax, which is discussed in the following
chapters. As continued throughout the rest of the book, the author
establishes in this chapter a model of presenting interesting
questions at the beginning of the chapter, taking logically patterned
steps to investigate various possible answers, and finally
establishing a careful rationale for choosing the most attractive and
most logical answer(s). This includes careful description of
research design, synthesis and rigorous analysis of data, evaluation
of competing hypotheses, and the pointing out of interesting
directions for further research. For example, at the beginning and
in the middle of this chapter, Guasti asks and answers questions such
as:
''But how have [children] managed to discover words?''
''How can the child establish the meaning of a given word?''
''How do toddlers know that labels identify objects or describe
actions, that is, that words have reference and contribute to the
truthfulness of sentences?''
She introduces the learnability problem here and reiterates the
plausibility of a UG-based explanation even at the level of lexicon.
Her conclusions are that children make use of innate conceptual
schemata, cues from the extralinguistic context (''word to world
mapping''), and in a spiraling pattern, use syntax to gain further
lexicon (''sentence-to-world mapping'').

Chapters 4 through 10 all address the acquisition of syntax and
morphosyntax. These chapter titles read something similar to a
syntax text and cover topics such as: clauses, agreement relations,
root infinitives, null subjects, Wh-movement in question formation
and relative clauses, passive constructions, principles of binding
theory and anaphora, quantification of NPs and universal
quantification, and control theory regarding early learners
representations of the understood subjects/objects of non-finite
verbs (PRO) empty category.

The data presented in these chapters come from a variety of
languages, mainly English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and
German. There are also examples to a lesser degree from Chinese,
Salish, Japanese, Danish, Catalan, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Polish,
Serbo-Croatian, Russian and others. This variety of data helps to
support claims based on the concept of UG as well as distinguish
differences found in acquisition patterns that are based on
language-specific forms.

An example of the formality with which Guasti treats acquisition of
syntax in her text is found in her explanation of missing inflections
and auxiliaries in early speech. Many texts simply characterize this
as ''telegraphic speech'' and explain the stage using the notions of
lexical categories such as content or function words. Guasti links
telegraphic speech with a rationale from phrase structure
representations, explaining that early speech has functional
projections and movement rules within the X-bar structural system
that are distinct from those of the adult speaker. Again, she avoids
the learnability problem inherent in lexical explanations and
establishes through her analyses an elegant continuity between child
and adult mental grammars.

In Chapter 5 ''Null Subjects in Early Languages,'' the author
provides a tripartite characterization of parameters setting in the
world's languages related to null subjects and relates these to the
parameter setting of early language users. In her arguments
explaining early null subjects, she discusses not only these types of
syntactic constraints relevant to competence in language, but also
possible phonological constraints relevant to performance.

Chapter 6 ''Acquisition of Wh-Movement'' engages in explaining why
Wh-Movement in negative questions lags in English but not in other
languages. Some interesting language specific differences in
acquisition appear to be linked to specific morphosyntactic
properties of English verbs. Guasti goes on to give careful and
elegant rationale for positing a ''null auxiliary'' parallel to the
null subject. She manages to avoid the problems inherent in
hypothesizing a feature of early syntax which does not exist in adult
grammar and the discontinuity that this would imply. This chapter
outlines research related to the comprehension of long distance
Wh-Movment as well as production and points out some interesting
hierarchical implication relationships in development. A variety of
explanations for children's errors is examined, including analysis
of pragmatic variables that may have influenced research outcomes.
And finally, the chapter reiterates the importance of avoiding
discontinuities between child and adult grammars because of the
learnability problems which then require resolution.

Chapter 7 ''Acquisition of NP-Movement'' refutes the traditional
maturational accounts for difficulties encountered in acquiring
passives and indicates that early learners likely have much more
competence than they have been given credit for due to faults in
previous research design or formulation of explanations of data.
Guasti provides evidence, using unaccusative verbs, that children can
access hierarchical relationships at an early age, rather than being
dependent on flat linear relationships between sentence components as
was previously thought.

Through the discussion in Chapter 8 ''Acquisition of the Binding
Principles,'' Guasti emphasizes the importance of language
acquisition studies in supporting greater linguistic theory. She
shows here that early learners do have access to the syntactic
Binding Principles by the age of 3 or 4, enabling them to interpret
anaphoric relationships of sentence elements and produce pronouns and
pronoun referents. As in Chapter 6, both comprehension and
production studies are presented. At one point in the chapter,
Guasti mentions that more work is indicated in developmental
pragmatics in order to complete the explanations of child pronoun
usage errors.

Chapter 9 ''Aspects of the Acquisition of Quantification'' contains
important critiques of research design used to explain the early
learners' representations of quantification. The author emphasizes
the importance of the plausibility of the task in designing tests for
children and suggests that pragmatic infelicities may be responsible
for conflicting results. Later, she draws interesting parallels
between work in acquisition of quantification in language and
experiments in the development of numerical competence.

Chapter 10 ''Acquisition of Control'' discusses children's early
interpretations of the subjects and objects of non-finite verbs in
complement, adjunct and embedded elements of the sentence. Research
has suggested that children can distinguish between lexical pronouns
and PRO. However, there is a stage at which production exceeds
comprehension (around age 3), which is mentioned as an interesting
discrepancy.

The final chapter ''Dissociation between Language and Other Cognitive
Abilities'' is an excellent ending to the book. The chapter begins
with the question, ''Is language dependent from other cognitive
capacities?'' It includes comparisons and data from two types of
children from varying linguistic backgrounds: 1) those who have
specific language impairment (SLI) in which normal cognitive capacity
is present but language capacity is impaired, and 2) those who have
Williams syndrome in which cognitive capacity is impaired but
language capacity is not. The chapter shows that language systems
function and are acquired (at least to a great degree) independently
from other cognitive systems.

CRITICAL EVALUATION
Guasti's text can be recommended on a number of levels,
namely, the clarity of its organization and reasoning, the
comprehensiveness of its reporting of previous and current research
from a variety of languages, and its modeling of critical thinking
skills involved in analyzing language, designing research, and
formulating and evaluating hypotheses. Both pedagogically and as a
reference tool, this book makes significant contributions to the
field. Guasti poses interesting questions throughout her book and
answers them with convincing and compelling arguments.

Although the book has overall very good readability, I found certain
discussions, especially the one on sources of root infinitives in
Chapter 4 (p. 133 to 144) and the one of the nature of the empty
category (p. 167-170) to be somewhat too dense (too technical?) for
my comfort level. (Perhaps this could stand as a caveat for
professors using the book with their students?) Guasti carefully and
usefully defines certain terms, such as ''bootstrapping,'' but
mistakenly assumes readers know or can easily access definitions for
other terms (such as ''unaccusative'' and ''unergative''), which are
important for full understanding of her points. Her glossary is
helpful, but it would be more helpful were it better balanced. Of
forty-six terms defined in the glossary, 22 refer to phonology, which
only takes up one chapter in the book, and only 24 refer to syntax,
which is discussed at a quite theoretical level in seven chapters,
the majority of the book.

In this same regard, I was left wishing that more in-depth treatment
had been given to both phonology and lexicon, and that additional
chapters had been added discussing semantics and pragmatics and the
interfaces in early language. It may be that there is simply not yet
as much research available in these areas, but I would certainly hope
to see additions as data becomes available. Also, as more data is
forthcoming from other non-Indo-European languages, it should be more
fully integrated in order to enrich or complete the analyses. For
example, in the discussion of acquisition of verbs through syntactic
cuing, there was a bias toward the perspective of Indo-European
data. Adding data from acquisition of verbs in discourse-oriented
languages such as Japanese or from languages such as Hopi whose verbs
have distinct types of arguments would broaden our understanding.

This is a stimulating and theoretically rich text, which provides
data-driven analyses and reaches logical conclusions about child
language acquisition. It is faithful to the tenets of UG and the
innateness hypothesis while giving consideration to alternative
explanations.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Julie Bruch teaches "Linguistic Diversity and Awareness" and
"History of the English Language" at Mesa State College. She is
interested in theories of first and second language acquisition and
cross-cultural/cross-linguistic comparisons, especially in the area
of politeness.

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ISBN: 0262572206
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Pages: 496
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