Date: Wed, 02 Jun 2004 00:14:01 +0000 From: Julie Bruch 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.