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Review of  Language Acquisition across Linguistic and Cognitive Systems

Reviewer: Ursula Kania
Book Title: Language Acquisition across Linguistic and Cognitive Systems
Book Author: Michèle Kail Maya Hickmann
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Book Announcement: 22.3134

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EDITORS: Kail, Michèle and Hickmann, Maya
TITLE: Language Acquisition across Linguistic and Cognitive Systems
SERIES TITLE: Language Acquisition and Language Disorders 52
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Ursula Kania, English Department, University of Leipzig (Germany)


During the last two decades, various disciplines of the cognitive sciences have
produced numerous contributions to the study of language acquisition which are
based on a variety of theoretical frameworks, and use different methods as well
as data from many different languages.

The edited volume under review contains 17 individual contributions with the aim
of bringing together these different strands of research focusing on linguistic
as well as cognitive determinants in the acquisition process. Included are
articles on (typical as well as atypical) first language acquisition, early
bilingualism and second language acquisition. The volume is the newest title in
the series 'Language Acquisition and Language Disorders'. As the editors point
out, a first version of all chapters previously appeared in Kaye, Fayol &
Hickmann (2008) but all contributions have been revised and updated for the
current volume. The book is aimed primarily at researchers and students in the
field of language acquisition, but the editors note that teachers, clinicians
and parents may also find this book of interest.

The book is divided into three parts:

PART I ('Emergence and dynamics of language acquisition and disorders', Chapters
1-4) offers an introduction to the topic (the two major theoretical frameworks
and modelling techniques) and presents findings on the bootstrapping question
and language disorders.

PART II ('First language acquisition: Universals and diversity', Chapters 5-11)
starts out with an introduction to a cross-linguistic perspective, and then
presents and discusses findings on universal and language-specific factors in
language acquisition.

Part III ('Bilingualism and second language acquisition: A multidisciplinary
perspective', Chapters 12-17) broadens the scope by focusing on (early versus
late) bilingualism and second language learning.


Chapter 1, 'A tale of two paradigms', by Brian MacWhinney, contrasts two major
theoretical frameworks, i.e. Chomsky's Universal Grammar (UG) and the
emergentist approach, focusing on eight core questions in which the two
frameworks diverge. UG is also referred to as 'linguistic nativism' since this
approach postulates that some aspects of grammar cannot be learned from the
input (which is thought to be impoverished) and must therefore be hard-wired in
a language-specific faculty in the brain. In contrast to this, the emergentist
view holds that language relies on general cognitive abilities and that children
can learn language on the basis of their rich linguistic environment using
general learning strategies. In the second part of his chapter, MacWhinney
elaborates on the logic of emergentist approaches and links the recent paradigm
shift towards emergentism to advances in fields like biology and the
availability of new empirical methods like the analysis of CHILDES-corpora,
imaging techniques, and modelling.

In Chapter 2, 'Dynamic systems methods in the study of language acquisition',
Paul van Geert offers insights into how language acquisition can be seen and
modelled as a dynamic system. In the first part of the chapter, the author
provides a short introduction to dynamic systems theory and its possible
contribution to research in language development. Essentially, a dynamic
systems approach to language acquisition views language as a complex, emergent
system with sets of interacting variables, whose characteristics can be modelled
in order to describe and explain developmental changes. In the second part, van
Geert discusses a study that uses empirical as well as simulated data to
describe the developmental trajectory from 1 to 3 word utterances in French
child speech.

In Chapter 3, 'Early bootstrapping of syntactic acquisition', Anne Christophe,
Séverine Millotte, Perrinne Brusini and Elodie Cauvet address the so-called
bootstrapping question, i.e. if/how far children are able to use their knowledge
in one domain (e.g. phonology) to simplify the tasks they face in another domain
(e.g. syntax). They present experimental data focusing on the interaction of
phrasal prosody and function words in the early acquisition of French,
concluding that children: 1. use their perception of prosodic units and function
words to assign a syntactic category to content words; and 2. can subsequently
make use of syntactic context to infer something about the meaning and the
grammatical category of unknown words.

The fourth and final chapter of the first part, 'Language acquisition in
developmental disorders', by Michael S. C. Thomas, deals with language
development in atypical populations, focusing on Williams Syndrome (WS) and SLI
(Specific Language Impairment). In Thomas' view, neurogenetic disorders (like
WS) and disorders defined on the basis of behavioural deficits (like SLI) should
not be characterised in terms of a normal system with certain components missing
or malfunctioning. Rather, the linguistic behaviour of individuals suffering
from such conditions should be seen as resulting from different sets of
constraints under which the adaptive language learning system operates. Observed
language profiles may thus result from the use of alternative pathways
(redundancy, observed in, for example, vocabulary acquisition in WS) and
compensation strategies (in SLI, where the declarative memory system tries to
compensate for impairment in the procedural memory system, for example, in the
learning of inflections).


Elena Lieven's chapter, 'Language Development in a cross-linguistic context',
provides an overview of the advances in this field during the last two decades
and concludes that cross-linguistic research is absolutely necessary in order to
develop psychologically plausible accounts of language development, since
successful language learning of typologically diverse languages in different
communicative environments has to be accounted for.

Chapter 6, 'A typological approach to first language acquisition', by Wolfgang
U. Dressler argues for the comparison of the acquisition of (groups of) similar
languages, categorised by ordering typology. Presenting results from the
'Cross-linguistic Project on Pre- and Protomorphology in Language Acquisition',
Dressler shows how universal, typological and language-specific properties exert
an influence on the acquisition process in the domain of morphology.

Chapter 7, 'Linguistic relativity in first language acquisition: Spatial
language and cognition', by Maya Hickmann, reports on a number of studies she
and her collaborators conducted on children's and adults' expression of (path
and manner of) motion in French and English. While there is an overall increase
in semantic density with age, English (a satellite-framed language) also
exhibits a higher semantic density relative to French (a verb-framed language)
in all age-groups, suggesting that language specific and general cognitive
factors interact to shape development. However, it remains to be seen whether
this also has consequences for non-linguistic representations of motion events.

Chapter 8 also deals with linguistic relativity, but presents findings that
support the opposite (i.e. universalistic) view. The author Csaba Pléh reports
'On the importance of goals in child language: Acquisition and impairment data
from Hungarian'. He draws on two sets of findings (from normal subjects and
patients with WS acquiring Hungarian) that provide support for the
universalistic approach, according to which there are general cognitive biases
(e.g. towards the expression of goals) that influence the organisation of
spatial language.

Chapter 9, 'Promoting patients in narrative discourse: A developmental
perspective', by Harriet Jisa, Florence Chenu, Gabriella Fekete and Hayat Omar,
addresses the question of how children acquiring a variety of languages
(Amharic, English, French, Hungarian) develop/use the ability to switch
perspectives in narrative productions, indicated by their marking of participant
roles. The findings suggest that children start using these different forms (for
the same function) at roughly the same age in all languages, despite the fact
that there are different formal options to topicalise patients in the four

The next contribution ('On-line grammaticality judgments: A comparative study of
French and Portuguese', Chapter 10) aims at specifying a possible interaction
between language-specific and universal constraints. The authors, Michèle Kail,
Armanda Costa and Isabel Hub Faria, present results of an experimental study
conducted with French and Portuguese monolinguals. Overall, performance improves
with age, and late grammatical violations are detected more quickly than early
ones. However, intraphrasal violations are detected more rapidly than
interphrasal violations in French, while the Portuguese results show the
opposite pattern. Interpreted within a Competition Model framework, this could
be due to the fact that relevant morphological information is not phonologically
salient in Portuguese (i.e. low cue perceptibility). It is thus suggested that
universal constraints and language-specific properties interact to shape on-line
processing and the detection of violations.

Chapter 11, written by the late Clive Perdue, summarises and discusses research
addressing 'The expression of finiteness by L1 and L2 learners of Dutch, French,
and German'. While there are similarities in the performance of L1 and L2
learners, findings suggest that children inevitably acquire
M(orphological)-finiteness with great speed and relative ease, while adult
learners (like children) learn ways of expressing S(emantic)-finiteness, but
(unlike children) may never master M-finiteness. Since Perdue includes L2
learners in his cross-linguistic comparison, this chapter serves as a bridge
between PART II (with a focus on cross-linguistic research) and PART III (which
includes contributions on bilingualism and second language learning).


Chapter 12, 'Age of onset in successive acquisition of bilingualism: Effects on
grammatical development', by Jürgen M. Meisel, serves both as an introduction to
and an evaluation of the differences between first and second language
acquisition, focusing on the age factor and the notion of a critical period.
Adopting the maturation hypothesis, incomplete L2 development is explained by
the assumption that the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that guides L1
development is not fully accessible to L2 learners because of specific
constraints that are caused by neural maturation. While Meisel assumes that
there is a ''cluster of sensitive periods'' (225) affecting different areas of
grammar, rather than one single critical period, he argues that critical changes
happen earlier than is commonly assumed (at 3;6-4 years and again at 6-7),
making a very young age of acquisition the most crucial factor for ultimate

Chapter 13, 'The development of person-number verbal morphology in different
types of learners', by Suzanne Schlyter, draws on analyses of spontaneous spoken
and written data obtained from adult Swedish learners of French and bilingual
Swedish-French children. Comparisons between those groups show that there are
marked differences between L1 and L2 development concerning the speed and course
of development. Furthermore, modality-specific characteristics exert an
influence; e.g. since there is a transparent, one-to-one mapping of form and
function in the written marking of 3rd person plural in French (-nt), it is
mastered earlier than the same marking (that has different phonological
realisations) in spoken French.

If and how developmental patterns observed in L1 and L2 learners can be modelled
is the focus of Chapter 14, 'Re-thinking the bilingual interactive-activation
model from a developmental perspective (BIA-d)'. The authors (Jonathan Grainger,
Katherine Midgley and Philip J. Holcomb) offer a brief introduction to the
model, which assumes that word recognition in bilinguals is initially
language-nonselective and that representations in the non-target language have
to be inhibited top-down. Furthermore, L1 and L2 lexical representations are
thought to be part of a ''single lateral inhibitory network'' (275). This
contrasts with claims on lexical processing in second language learners made by
the revised hierarchical model (RHM, Kroll & Stewart 1994), which assumes that
L1 and L2 are linked through excitatory connections between translation
cognates. A developmental version of the BIA is introduced (BIA-d), which aims
to integrate the increasing proficiency of late L2 learners, thus offering a
coherent framework that unites the RHM and the BIA and paves the way for more
dynamic models of language learning.

In Chapter 15, 'Foreign language vocabulary learning: Word-type effects during
the labelling stage', Annette M. B. de Groot and Rosanne C. L. van den Brink
review the results of twelve experimental studies that focus on the influence of
a variety of factors on the acquisition and long-term retention of
foreign-language (FL) words. Dutch participants were taught new words via
paired-associate-learning materials (picture-word and/or word-word pairs) and
recall scores were obtained in tests between training sessions and in a delayed
recall test (one week later). Concreteness, typicality and cognate status of the
FL words led to better learning and higher retention compared to abstract,
non-typical and non-cognate items, which has implications for the manner and
frequency with which FL words should be presented in the FL classroom.

Chapter 16, by Christophe Pallier, very briefly summarises research on 'Cerebral
imaging and individual differences in language learning'. Studies have shown
that there seem to be ''cerebral correlates of abilities involved in second
language acquisition'' (303). However, the exact nature of those correlates and
their development with increasing proficiency of language learners remain as
areas to be explored in future work.

In Chapter 17, 'The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition and
bilingualism: Factors that matter in L2 acquisition -- A neuro-cognitive
perspective', Susanne Reiterer summarises findings from brain imaging studies in
light of biological, psychological, and socio-linguistic factors that lead to
individual differences in L2 acquisition.


In their introduction, the editors state that ''[t]he general aim of the volume
is to provide multidisciplinary and comparative perspectives on language
acquisition concerning multiple and variable factors of typical and atypical
development within a large age range as well as across languages and learners''
(3). Considering the large number and variety of contributions, this general aim
has certainly been met.

However, this heterogeneity concerning, for example, theoretical background and
methodology, also has one (potential) drawback; since a descriptive linguist may
not know much about brain imaging and a cognitive psychologist might not be
familiar with concepts from language typology, short but comprehensive
introductions are needed in order to make all contributions accessible and to
encourage readers to indeed take a multidisciplinary perspective instead of just
focusing on contributions from their own field. Most of the chapters solve the
task quite well but some simply do not offer enough background information to
enable the reader to judge the value of the research presented (e.g. Chapter
16). Apart from this, all contributions require a considerable amount of
background knowledge concerning basic linguistic and psychological terminology.
Therefore, especially teachers and parents may only find a small part of this
publication accessible and teachers may be disappointed to find out that only
Chapter 15 provides some implications at a practical level.

Nonetheless, for the major part of the intended audience (i.e. researchers
working in the field of language acquisition), this edited volume is very
valuable. As with most edited volumes, the contributions are of mixed quality,
but overall, this publication succeeds in summarising and discussing the most
prominent strands of recent, ongoing and possible future research in language

Apart from the shift towards emergentist approaches outlined by MacWhinney
(Chapter 1), the book mirrors some of the most important recent developments in
the field, for example, the use of modelling (Chapters 2, 3, 4) and brain
imaging techniques (Chapters 4, 16, 17), as well as an increase in research from
a cross-linguistic perspective (Chapters 5-11).

Furthermore, the search for 'converging evidence' is reflected in an increased
use of combinations of methods (e.g. corpus data and modelling (Chapter 2)) and
the attempt to integrate findings from atypical populations, bilinguals and
second language learners into a more comprehensive account of language
development (e.g. Chapter 14, in which the authors outline a model that bridges
the 'gap' between second language and bilingual language learners). The
inclusion of these contributions is one of the great merits of the book, since
it is in these cases that the volume truly succeeds in ''bring[ing] together
different strands of research'' (1).

There are still many aspects that require further research and nearly all
contributions offer interesting suggestions in this respect. Apart from that,
there are striking omissions that reflect areas of neglect in past and present
research. For example, the index of languages shows a strong bias towards
Indo-European languages (especially English, French and German) and indicates
that the focus of (most) cross-linguistic research is still rather narrow.

All in all, the volume 'Language Acquisition across Linguistic and Cognitive
Systems' offers a very wide and interesting sample of recent contributions to
the study of language acquisition and will be of interest to researchers and
advanced students working on language acquisition in various fields of cognitive


Kaye, Michèle, Michel Fayol & Hickmann, Maya (eds.). 2008. Apprentissage des
langue. Paris: CNRS Editions.

Kroll, Judith F. & Stewart, Erika. 1994. Category interference in translation
and picture naming: Evidence for asymmetric connections between bilingual memory
representations. Journal of Memory and Language 33. 149-174.

Ursula Kania (BA/MA) is a research assistant and PhD student at the University of Leipzig, Germany. She teaches undergraduate courses in (synchronic and diachronic) English linguistics. Her main research interests are construction grammar and usage-based approaches to first and second language acquisition. She is a member of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association (GCLA/DGKL) and the International Association for the Study of Child Language (IASCL). Her PhD project is entitled 'The L1-Acquisition of (non)canonical polar question constructions in English'.