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Review of  Cross-Linguistic Aspects of Processability Theory

Reviewer: Robert Albert Felty
Book Title: Cross-Linguistic Aspects of Processability Theory
Book Author: Manfred Pienemann
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Chinese, Mandarin
Book Announcement: 17.2294

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EDITOR: Pienemann, Manfred
TITLE: Cross-Linguistic Aspects of Processability Theory
SERIES: Studies in Bilingualism 30
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2006

Robert Felty, Departments of Linguistics and German, University of Michigan

This book is in essence a continuation and expansion of Processability
Theory (PT) as proposed by Pienemann (1998). In that book he laid out a
theory of language acquisition based on psycholinguistic principles, and
applied it to data from several languages (English, German, Japanese, and
Swedish). In this edited volume, Pienemann and five other scholars further
apply PT to several more typologically diverse languages (Arabic, Chinese,
Japanese), which results in an extension of the theory.
The book is divided into eight chapters. The first chapter provides a
summary of Pienneman's (1998) original proposal of PT. Chapters two
through six contain applications of PT to various languages. In chapter
seven, Pienemann proposes an extension to PT based on the preceding
evidence. Further empirical evidence is discussed in chapter eight, using
the extended theory of PT.


In the first chapter, Pienemann outlines the basic tenets of PT and several
tests of its applicability to real language data. PT is heavily based on
two other theories: Lexical Functional Grammar and the model of language
production proposed by Levelt (1989). His theory differs in three key
aspects from many other theories of language acquisition: (1) processing is
both incremental and parallel, (2) language acquisition is constrained by
human psychological constraints, and (3) first language (L1) and second
language (L2) acquisition occur by the same procedures. The first aspect
is drawn largely from Levelt (1989), and is used as a way to explain the
so-called ''logical problem'', i.e. how do children acquire language so
quickly with such limited input. If language processing is not equivalent
to one CPU trying to parse an entire sentence, but rather has several
different processors working in parallel, this greatly increases the
efficiency of learning language. The second aspect is a response to the
prevalent views of learnability theory, which also address the logical
problem of language acquisition, but merely from a computational
perspective. The third aspect is in direct contrast with a very prevalent
view in second language acquisition (SLA) which state that L1 acquisition
is achieved by access to universal grammar (UG), whereas access to UG is
either limited or non-existent during L2 acquisition, and thus other
strategies must be used.

After laying out the basic aspects of the theory, Pienemann briefly applies
the theory to data from previous studies on SLA, including several on
English and German. He then goes on to compare L1 and L2 acquisition of
German word order, and shows that the different developmental paths can
both be accounted for by PT, by means of the notion of ''generative
entrenchment'', a notion he adopts from biology. The underlying principle
of generative entrenchment is that development occurs in small steps, and
that earlier choices constrain later choices. In this manner, an incorrect
choice early on forces the path of L2 development down a very different
route than L1 development, though they both (potentially) end up at the
same state.

The second chapter consists of a brief history of the development of PT
prior to the 1998 proposal, as well as several developments thereafter.
Pienemann and colleagues have proposed several different theories and
models aimed at describing and explaining SLA beginning in the early 1980s.
The first of these was the Multidimensional Model (Meisel, Clahsen, &
Pienemann 1981), which was primarily a descriptive framework for dynamic
processes in L2 development. The second theory discussed here is the
Strategies Approach (Clahsen 1984), which proposes an explanation for
German L2 word order development. Pienemann explains that PT incorporates
most of the successes of these theories, as well as aspects of the
Teachability Hypothesis (Pienemann 1984, 1989) and the Predictive Framework
(Pienemann & Johnston 1987), while addressing the shortcomings of these

The third chapter marks the beginning of the meat of the book -- new
studies on SLA from a PT perspective. In 'Processability, typological
distance, and L1 transfer', Pienemann, Biase, Kawaguchi and Håkansson
compare the predictions of various SLA theories with regards to L1
transfer. Many theories of SLA take the final state of the L1 grammar as
the starting point for L2 acquisition, and therefore predict that any
relevant aspects of the L1 should be transferred to the L2. PT takes a
very different approach however, namely that the starting point for L2
acquisition is virtually a blank slate, and that any components of the L1
that could be transferred will only do so at the appropriate stage in the
acquisition hierarchy. The authors cite some fairly convincing evidence in
support of this view. The data from bilinguals and learners paired by
language (e.g. L1 Finnish, L2 Swedish and vice versa) are particularly
compelling. These data clearly show that even when the learners L1 and L2
share a feature (e.g. Subject Verb inversion after initial adverbs in
German and Swedish), the learners might show a different pattern, depending
on their level of acquisition, as based on PT's acquisition hierarchy.
Moreover, it is also shown that the degree of L1 transfer is not
bi-directional in these cases.

The first language specific paper is provided in chapter four by Fethi
Mansouri entitled 'Agreement morphology in Arabic as a second language'.
The primary contribution from this chapter is the addition of evidence in
support of PT from a language typologically very different from previous
examples. The first part of this chapter is devoted to describing aspects
of Arabic morphology and syntax in an LFG framework, and using this to
develop a proposed acquisition hierarchy. This hierarchy is then supported
by evidence from Mansouri's (2000) year-long longitudinal study of two
Australians acquiring Arabic in a classroom setting.

Similar to chapter 4, chapter 5, 'Processing and formal instruction in the
L2 acquisition of five Chinese grammatical morphemes', by Yanyin Zhang is
divided into two parts: an LFG account of the morphemes in question, and an
SLA study of three Australians learning Chinese in a classroom setting. In
the first part an LFG analysis of Chinese morphology is proposed, and an
acquisition hierarchy is constructed. The empirical evidence support a PT
account of Chinese L2 acquisition, adding to the universal claim of PT.
Zhang also analyses the impact of formal instruction on acquisition. For
each grammatical structure analyzed, emergence was found only after the
structure had been presented in class, though some learners acquired it
much sooner than others. Formal instruction did not have an impact on the
order of the acquisition hierarchy however -- that is, formal instruction
can aid in speeding up the process of acquisition, but all the stages of
the hierarchy must be followed in order.

One of the strengths of PT is displayed in chapter 6, 'Similarities and
differences in L1 and L2 development'. In this paper, Håkansson first
compares previous findings of L1, L2 and SLI (Specific Language Impaired)
learners. She then presents her own findings from a longitudinal study with
Swedish learners, with five learners from each group. As mentioned
earlier, PT can be applied both to L1 and L2 acquisition, and in this paper
the advantage of this capability is born out. Håkansson is able to use the
same acquisition hierarchy to discuss all three groups of learners, and
finds three different patterns of acquisition, though the SLI learners seem
to pattern more closely to L2 learners than L1. She uses this finding to
suggest that perhaps acquisition should not be viewed as simply a dichotomy
between L1 and L2, but rather a continuum.

In chapter seven, 'Extending Processability Theory', Pienemann, Di Biase
and Kawaguchi incorporate new aspects of LFG into PT in order to better
explain a wider range of data. Two components are added to PT in this
chapter: (1) The Lexical Mapping Hypothesis, and (2) The Topic Hypothesis.
The former is a relatively new feature of LFG (Bresnan 2001), which
explains mappings from constituent structure (NP, VP, PP, etc.) to
functional structure (FOCUS, SUBJ, OBJ, etc.). The authors hypothesize
that there is a canonical mapping, in which the order of the c-structure
directly follows the f-structure, and that operations such as subject-verb
inversion and question formation deviate from this canonical mapping, and
are therefore difficult for L2 learners to process. The topic hypothesis
claims that L2 learners will not initially differentiate between SUBJ and
TOPIC, which will cause a different pattern of acquisition than L1
learners. Like many of the other chapters of the book, the first part
focuses on formalisms in LFG, and the second part focuses on its
application to SLA. Though this chapter was fairly dense with theory,
numerous examples aided in comprehension.

The extensions proposed in chapter seven are utilized by Kawaguchi in the
eighth chapter, 'Argument structure and syntactic development', in which
the L2 acquisition of Japanese syntax is investigated. Before laying out
an LFG account of Japanese syntax, Kawaguchi briefly reviews previous
investigations of Japanese acquisition. After an acquisition hierarchy is
constructed, empirical data from two longitudinal studies conducted by the
author, one two-year and one with three-year study, with one learner each.
In both studies, the proposed acquisition hierarchy is supported. The
contribution of this chapter lies in the use of the newly incorporated
aspects of PT, without which the analysis would not have possible.


Both in the present volume and in the 1998 book, Pienemann makes some bold
claims as to the nature of language acquisition, and backs these claims up
with substantial data. The data is the main focus of this volume, which
provides much further evidence in support of PT. More importantly though,
some of the data also show limitations of the theory as originally
proposed. Pienemann, Biase, and Kawaguchi are to be commended for proposing
an extension to the theory, rather than simply throwing it out in favor of
a different theory. A remaining question is whether PT can also account for
acquisition of phonology and phonetics, and if not, whether an additional
extension to the theory is possible. Phonetics might be particularly
difficult, as phonetic data is inherently continuous, whereas PT is very
discrete in nature.

At times Pienemann comes across as somewhat defensive, especially in the
second chapter, in which he dedicates 6 pages to rebuffing criticism of PT
posed by Jordan (2004). While he goes into a fair amount of detail about
the criticisms, it seems slightly out of place here. Surely to the reader
encountering PT for the first time, this discussion is confusing at best,
since it cannot fully be understood without having first read both
Pienemann (1998) and Jordan (2004). In particular, the notion of the
'emergence criterion' is discussed in length, but once again, for a
definition thereof, the reader is simply referred back to the 1998 volume.
Since this is a key point in understanding PT, it would have been
extremely helpful to provide a definition of the concept in the present work.

One significant drawback for PT is that it relies on a very specific type
of data -- production data in a natural setting from a modest number of
second language learners. In order to be able to construct a hierarchy of
stages of acquisition, a large amount of data must be collected. Then
evidence for or against the acquisition of particular structures must be
found at each stage in the hierarchy in order to confirm or falsify the
predictions of PT. Some might argue that this is the only research method
that is truly valid, but unfortunately the limits of time and money in the
real world often prevent researchers from undertaking such large projects.
The other possible drawback with using longitudinal data is that frequently
the number of participants is very small (including several studies in this
volume), and thus the generalizability of the study is questionable.
Moreover, others might argue that this approach ignores data from other
tasks such as speech perception and grammaticality judgments, which can
also provide information valuable information about stages of acquisition.

Overall the editorial quality of the book is quite high. Besides the
occasional typographical error, there were only two major errors to be
found: (1) Two tables on page 148 that are intended to show differences in
the acquisition of two learners are in fact the same table, which yields
the claims of difference unverifiable (2) the last chapter contains a
number of grammatical errors which should have been corrected by the editor.

In spite of the few shortcomings mentioned above, 'Cross-Linguistics
Aspects of Processability Theory' should prove a valuable read for anyone
interested in language acquisition, particularly SLA, and most specifically
with the acquisition of morphology and syntax. Pienemann and colleagues
have presented very thought-provoking ideas for linguists and psychologists
interested in language acquisition to ponder.


Bresnan, Joan. 2001. Lexical-Functional Syntax. Oxford: Blackwell.

Clahsen, Harald. 1984. The acquisition of German word order: A test case
for cognitive approaches to l2 development. In R. Anderson (Ed.), Second
languages, p. 219-242. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Jordan, Geoff. 2004. Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Levelt, W.J.M. 1989. Speaking. From intention to articulation. Cambridge,
MA: The IT Press.

Mansouri, Fethi. 2000. Grammatical Markedness and information Processing in
the Acquisition of Arabic as a Second Language. München: Lincom Europa.

Meisel, J.M., Harald Clahsen and Manfred Pienemann. 1981. On determining
developmental stages in natural second languages acquisition. Studies in
Second Language Acquisition, 3, 109-135.

Pienemann, Manfred. 1984. Psychological constraints on the teachability of
languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 6 (2), 186-214.

Pienemann, Manfred and Malcolm Johnston. 1987. Factors influencing the
development of language proficiency. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Applying Second
Language Acquisition, 21, 383-420.

Pienemann, Manfred. 1998. Language Processing and Second Language
Development: Processability theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Robert Felty is a graduate student in Linguistics and German at the
University of Michigan. His research interests include lexical access,
phonetics and phonology, second language acquisition, and Germanic