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Review of Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition
EDITORS: Jill de Villiers, Tom Roeper TITLE: Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition SERIES TITLE: Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics PUBLISHER: Springer YEAR: 2011
Darcy Sperlich, Department of Applied Linguistics and Language Studies, University of Auckland / School of English, Manukau Institute of Technology
SUMMARY This handbook is the newest in line on First Language Acquisition (FLA), with nine chapters (excluding the introduction) on major topics in FLA. I will provide a brief summary of each chapter, followed by an evaluation.
Introduction -- Jill de Villiers and Tom Roeper The editors discuss the aims and contributions the handbook makes, setting the generative scene and providing a clear overview of each paper.
Missing Subjects in Early Child Language -- Nina Hyams Hyams first focuses on parameter setting and maturational analyses regarding missing subjects, discussing the pros and cons of pro-drop setting, morphological uniformity (having to do with the relationship between inflection and null subjects), topic drop, competing grammars (both settings are considered initially but one wins out), and licensing of PRO. Next, she turns her attention to missing subjects in finite clauses, discussing the more contemporary proposal called ‘root subject drop’.
To this point her discussion is focused on the grammar internal (UG) hypotheses of subject drop but is followed up by investigating grammar-external hypotheses. The first of which regards processing limits (e.g., the ‘output omission model’), where subject drop is explained in terms of the limits on how children can process sentences, and the second of metric effects (pronouns do not fit a trochaic foot). She then reviews studies using differing methodologies, showing that the converging evidence falls on the grammar internal side. Finally, she discusses discourse factors surrounding null subjects, concluding that the area is a highly complex one requiring further research.
Grammatical Computation in the Optional Infinitive Stage -- Ken Wexler Wexler’s chapter tackles the question of why young children use an infinitive main verb (where one would use a finite main verb), and how to account for it. This is termed the Optional Infinitive (OI) stage, where Wexler first lays the groundwork and gives a thorough background of its development, presenting a wide range of studies. He discusses how languages may or may not go through the OI stage, as well as looking at the Agr/Tns Omission Model (ATOM) model in regards to Case assignment.
Subsequently, he turns to models of the OI, presenting extensive evidential data to show that the ‘radical omission’ model as the right path to take. One such model is the Unique Checking Constraint (UCC), originating from Wexler himself. After an in-depth discussion of the model, he compares it to the Truncation Model, and ultimately rejects it in favor of the UCC. The topic shifts to the maturational nature of OI, and how contemporary studies point to genetic influence on language development.
The last major section of this chapter sets out to refute empiricist models of OI, with the lion’s share of negative attention focused on Legate and Yang’s learning theory model. He critiques their proposals in great detail, showing their weaknesses in favor of the UCC. Finally, he covers be-omission, and mentions other topics that he was not able to cover in the chapter.
Computational Models of Language Acquisition -- Charles Yang Yang presents his approach to language acquisition through a probabilistic grammar theory, in which children entertain multiple grammars (UG restricted), and through language input, one will eventually win out. He starts by introducing us to the statistics behind word and construction frequency, and the theories of how children set out to learn them (in terms of positive and negative results). He covers distributional learning in terms of syntactic categories and grammar, presenting various factors that computational linguistics brings to the table.
Yang then moves on to models of acquisition in the Principles and Parameters framework, and focuses upon probabilistic models of parameter setting, and shows, for example, how parameters have signatures in the input, leading to efficient parameter setting.
Finally, the chapter covers learnability and development, discussing various issues such as the Subset Principle in how grammar is restricted, to how parameters relate to the development of child language.
The Acquisition of the Passive -- Kamil Ud Deen Deen starts by covering the background of passives and the difficulty they pose for children (first focusing on English), covering issues such as role reversal, frequency, and short vs. long passives, among others. Next, he moves onto early literature on the matter, and then focuses on the analyses provided. These include the A-Chain Deficit Hypothesis and its predictions, and its updated version called the Universal Phase Requirement. A similar overview is given of the Theta-Transmission model. Next is the issue of frequency, noting that while the passive may be rare in English, this is certainly not necessarily the issue with other languages (and Deen uses a study on Sesotho to illustrate this).
Deen concludes with more contemporary studies, the first which notes the misuse of agents and experiencers in Truth Value Judgment Tasks, correcting that use, resulting in data that are problematic for the aforementioned models. The second study uses priming methodology which shows the passive is primable in young children, hence alluding their knowledge of it. This is followed by a study into Mandarin and Cantonese speaking children which demonstrates their better grasp of the passive over their English counterparts; and finally a newer study on Sesotho passives confirming young children’s knowledge of the passive.
The Acquisition Path for Wh-Questions -- Tom Roeper and Jill de Villiers The authors first cover basic wh-terminology, and then move to wh-movement and auxiliary movement in child language. First, they show that through auxiliary movement more light is cast upon the English child’s CP structure (C with no Spec position), and also the differences found in Romance languages. They progress into issues surrounding subject and objects, and how a child might understand wh-questions about them. Next, the authors consider cross-over effects in wh-questions, before moving onto long distance wh-questions, noting that it is not clear whether subject or object wh-questions are relatively harder to interpret.
The next section discusses quantificational properties of wh-questions, where the authors investigate the interface of semantics and pragmatics with syntax. For example, the word ‘who’ may ask for one or more persons, and within child language the child first would only provide an answer with a single person (e.g., ‘who is eating ice cream’ would elicit ‘the girl’, even though there are three girls eating it), whereas at a later stage children realize that they may provide an answer which encompasses all the people . The authors then consider Superiority effects in various languages, where they consider the issue of the effect being absent in German. The last major section deals with barriers to wh-movement, which are shown to be present in child grammar. Medial questions are next, discussed in terms of Partial movement (a wh-word has moved to either the first or embedded CP), noting that there are at least five different varieties of movement. Finally, they round off the discussion by elaborating wh-movement in terms of the Strong Minimalist Thesis and the insights it provides, e.g. the application of Phase and its implications for wh-movement.
Binding and Coreference: Views from Child Language -- Cornelia Hamann Hamann begins the discussion with the ‘Delay of Principle B Effect’, whereby children do not interpret pronouns (in the object position) correctly at times, something which has since been updated to the ‘Pronoun Interpretation Problem (PIP)’. She then sets the theoretical background of the Binding Theory (while also showing its problems), and pragmatic approaches to binding and coreference. Her discussion progresses to the typology of anaphors, and of binding in Minimalist terms.
The next section looks to apply this to children’s language, focusing on their interpretation of pronouns. After reviewing several studies, the question is asked whether or not there is a PIP effect at all. Again after reviewing the literature, Hamann concludes that the PIP is related to coreference rather than binding. This is followed by a discussion on child English and Dutch studies in terms of reflexivity and chains, before moving onto clitic pronouns, where the PIP effect is not observed. Analyses of why the PIP effect is not observed in such languages are covered, from a structural and pragmatic viewpoint.
The final section concerns more recent developments, reviewing studies that criticize earlier studies on methodology, and henceforth their conclusions. The final component covers how a ‘pronoun parameter’ might be set.
Universal Grammar and the Acquisition of Japanese Syntax -- Koji Sugisaki and Yukio Otsu This chapter focuses solely on the child’s acquisition of Japanese, the only language-specific article in this handbook. Each topic is supported by experimental studies. The authors first discuss the basic word order in Japanese (SOV), and how SVO and OSV sentences originate from that basic order (via scrambling), and how children interpret those sentences. Next is the configurational nature of child Japanese. Third, wh-movement (in-situ) is shown to be locally restricted; fourth, the c-command condition; and fifth, binding conditions on the Japanese anaphor ‘zibun’. The final section considers the distinction between indirect and adversative passives and if children are aware of this distinction.
Studying Language Acquisition Through the Prism of Isomorphism -- Julien Musolino This chapter has to do with scope ambiguity with quantifiers and negatives in sentences, e.g. ‘Every linguist didn’t read this review’, termed Isomorphism. Children and adults tend to have different interpretations of such sentences, and the author provides basic background on the relationship between quantifiers and negation, and then on his own previous study that discovered the phenomena and his grammatical explanation for it (which has since been abandoned). This brings us to studies that led to the above conclusion, and to discussion of Isomorphism having garden-path effects, and occurring as a pragmatic epiphenomenon, introducing the Question-Answer Requirement (QAR) analysis. This is followed by a detailed critique of the QAR, showing its shortcomings. The final point is that Isomorphism should be viewed as a progressive research program, discussing the various roads ahead.
Acquiring Knowledge of Universal Quantification -- William Philip The concluding chapter focuses on a similar topic to the preceding one, quantification. Philip begins by considering what role UG has in learning quantification, covering the difficulties it poses, the restriction on it that a child must learn, and the guidance UG provides. He then focuses on an interesting problem observed called ‘exhaustive pairing’, e.g. given the sentence ‘Each linguist is reading a book’, and there is a picture with three linguists and four books (implying one is unread (the book and not the linguist)), a child might reject the above sentence because of the unread book. He reviews the proposed analyses of the problem, and focuses on the Pragmatic Account where its predictions are tested in three differing experiments. I cannot comment on these experiments in detail, but suffice to say his findings support his view of UG guidance given to the acquisition of quantification (along with other factors).
EVALUATION One gets the distinct impression that the scholars in this handbook are on top of their field, as their articles are thoroughly referenced and the issues comprehensively covered. Considering Hyams, nothing, so to speak, is missing on her discussion of missing subjects, as she skillfully takes us from the beginnings of the research issue to the present, leaving no stone left unturned. Reading Wexler, one has the impression that his theory is the only way to go, as he methodologically takes apart all other competing theories, leaving his as the winner. Surprisingly perhaps, one theory that Wexler deconstructs is Yang’s, presented by Yang himself in the next article. Yang, on the other hand, is more concerned with explaining his theory rather than comparing it with the competition, and once finished the readers will be left to make up their own mind, as both scholars present very convincing arguments. Deen’s chapter on the passive brings to bear good cross-linguistic evidence from lesser-studied languages in FLA. One may note however that he states that Cantonese passives obligatory use the ‘by phrase’ in every passive -- this is not completely correct, as it has been noted in Matthews and Yip (1994:150) that Cantonese may also drop the ‘by phrase’, which has come about by influence of Mandarin. Roeper and de Villier’s chapter on wh-questions is an excellent overview on the issues at hand, taking us up to current Minimalist thinking and applying it to the phenomena observed. Perusing Hamann, the studies reviewed in her chapter are mostly concerned with structural and pragmatic theories of binding; while it is understandable that most previous studies had been undertaken with the Binding theory in mind, recent Minimalist trends (e.g., Reuland (2011), Rooryck and Wyngaerd (2011)) aim to do away with the theory completely. Personally, I would have liked to see the issues put under the Minimalist microscope, as this would have an impact on the discussion of Principle B (where the current literature seeks to do away with). Sugisaki and Otsu’s article is a good all rounder which applies the generative analyses in FLA to Japanese, presumably to show the success of UG applied to an Asian language. Musolino’s chapter seems to be the least UG-driven, as his investigation into isomorphism is semantic in nature. To be fair, his earliest account of this problem sought a grammatical explanation which has now been abandoned in favor of a more overarching research program; yet after reading his present account I thought it a little odd, considering its semantic nature, to find it in a volume dedicated to the generative paradigm. Philip’s final chapter on UG quantification is a very interesting read, and the experiments he undertakes deserve to be commended as they are very well thought out and designed.
Looking at the book as a whole, the chapters are authoritative, well written, easy to follow and fit well with each other. Authors are well aware of each other’s contributions and reference each other on occasion. The languages discussed cover a wide typological range, showing the wide applicability of their approaches, and also show further avenues of research. Regarding the medium, it is good that the publishers have it as an e-book as well as on paper for easier access. Lastly, this volume is overwhelmingly focused on state-of-the-art discussions, with only Philip offering a new study, and in fairness, as the editors state in their introduction, this is their main purpose.
Finally, how does this book differ from recent volumes on FLA? If we pick up The Cambridge Handbook of Child Language (2009), we find wide ranging topics on all aspects of child language written by many different scholars in the field. The current volume is simply focused on generative approaches, and authors have been given generous space to review and argue their positions, which ultimately leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the field. In light of this, the book is most useful for graduate students and researchers alike. Overall, this handbook is an excellent resource for those who wish to understand the core issues surrounding language acquisition from the point of view of the generative paradigm.
REFERENCES Bavin, E.L. (ed). (2009). The Cambridge Handbook of Child Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Matthews, S. and V. Yip. (1994). Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London, New York, Routledge.
Reuland, E. (2011). Anaphora and Language Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.
Rooryck, J. and G. V. Wyngaerd. (2011). Dissolving Binding Theory. New York, Oxford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Darcy Sperlich is currently a senior lecturer of ESOL in the School of
English at the Manukau Institute of Technology, in Auckland, New Zealand.
He is also a PhD student at the Department of Applied Language Studies and
Linguistics at the University of Auckland, investigating anaphoric
interpretation in Chinese Mandarin by speakers of other languages, and
whether or not this suggests an anaphoric pragmatic/syntactic division of
labour in the languages concerned. His other research interests include
Chinese comparative dialectology, especially as related to syntax.