Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Stilwell Peccei, Jean TITLE: Child Language SUBTITLE: A resource book for students SERIES: Routledge English Language Introductions PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis) YEAR: 2006
Elisabet Pladevall Ballester, Departament de Filologia Anglesa i Germanística, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain.
''Like children all over the world, Christian had mastered his native tongue in a remarkably short period of time. How did he do that? That is the question that those studying children's language development continue to ask [...]'' (p.2). With a brief illustration of how her son went through the inevitable process of language acquisition, the author presents Child Language, which provides a comprehensive introduction to first language acquisition.
Child Language is a textbook aimed at undergraduate students with no prior knowledge of the field. It is part of the Routledge English Language Introductions series, which offers students an accessible study tool with theoretical introductions, practical exercises, real data and essential readings on the subject.
The book is divided into four sections, Introduction, Development, Exploration and Extension, and is structured ''two-dimensionally'' in that each section contains eight units which deal with the same issues all throughout the book, although the focus is different in each section (the units are approaches to language acquisition, child phonology, child vocabulary, child morphology, child syntax, child discourse abilities, child literacy and child bilingualism). Thus the reader may wish to read ''horizontally'', progressing sequentially through all the units in each section to get a general overview of the subject, or else ''vertically'', reading the first unit in every section and continuing in this way in order to study an aspect of language acquisition in its different dimensions.
Section A, ''Introduction: Key Concepts in Language Acquisition'', introduces the readers to the basic theoretical components in the study of child language. Section A covers ''Approaches to Language Acquisition'', ''Phonological Development'', ''Lexical Development'', ''Morphological Development'', Syntactic Development'', ''Discourse Development'', ''Literacy Development'' and ''The Bilingual Child''. Each unit opens with a relevant example of a child utterance and at the end of each unit, a selection of further introductory reading is provided to facilitate the students' task.
Unit 1 (A1) provides an overview of the different theories of first language acquisition first introducing the reader to the nativist and the empiricist approaches. The role of input and the notion of ''child directed speech'' or ''motherese'' are also discussed and illustrated. A1 ends with a summary of what the author considers the basic and current tenets of child language development: (a) language is not simply a behaviour but a structured system that children acquire, (b) the child is an active language-builder, (c) children do not simply increase their linguistic knowledge but reorganize it adjusting it to input, and most importantly (d) the study of language acquisition does not only focus on either the child's innate knowledge, or the child's general cognitive processes or the child's interaction with input but it involves the ''interconnection of the child's co-developing linguistic, cognitive and social systems'' (p.6). It is precisely this conception of child language development as a combination of the above mentioned abilities that guides the sections of the book.
A2 focuses on the Phonological Development in child language. Essential concepts in phonology, such as phonemes, phonetic symbols, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), voice, place and manner of articulation are briefly introduced to the reader to set the basics for the phonological analysis of child language data. At the same time, the biological course of phonological development (i.e. reflexive vocalizations, cooing, vocal play, babbling and word utterances) is reviewed and the simplification processes present in child language are exemplified (i.e. substitution processes, such as ''stopping'', assimilatory processes, such as ''consonant voicing'' and syllable structure processes, such as ''vowel epenthesis'').
A3 deals with Lexical Development. This unit covers the notions of ''protoword'', ''under-extension'' and ''over-extension'', all present in child speech, and reflects on the difficulty on the part of the children to establish sense relations among words, such as synonymy, antonymy or hyponymy. Finally, an overview of the child's vocabulary growth is provided. A4 presents the course of Morphological Development by first introducing basic morphological concepts, such as free and bound morphemes, inflectional morphology and the most common processes in derivational morphology. The unit briefly comments on the appearance of the first inflectional morphemes and on the use of over-generalizations. Children's ''creativity'' and the use of the main word-formation processes are emphasized and clearly exemplified (i.e ''I'm souping'' (eating soup), p. 20).
A5 describes the features of Syntactic Development. The author briefly describes the one-word and the two-word stages and then focuses on Brown's (1973) description of the order of emergence of grammatical morphemes in English. Describing the child's syntactic development from the age of 2 onwards, different subsections are provided which deal with the use of noun phrases and pronouns, auxiliary verbs and the expression of tense and aspect, question formation, the use of negative sentences and more complex developments such as the use of coordination and subordination.
Having characterized the grammatical features of child language, A6 analyses Discourse Development and children's conversational skills and communicative competence. This unit explores the setting of a conversation topic, the development of a coherent dialogue, turn-taking and politeness strategies in the production of requests. A7 describes Literacy Development after the age of 5 and the need for explicit instruction. The different stages in learning to read and spell are reviewed and the concept of ''metalinguistic awareness'' is introduced. The last unit of Section A, A8, presents an overview of the Bilingual Child. A distinction is made between ''simultaneous bilingualism'', which involves acquiring two languages from birth and ''successive bilingualism'', which involves the acquisition of one language from birth and the acquisition of another language from a very early age. The notions of interference, code-mixing and code-switching are introduced and the cognitive advantages of bilingualism are outlined.
Section B,''Development: Analyzing Children's Language'', consolidates and extends the readers' knowledge of the issues presented in the eight units of Section A. This section provides students with guided analyses of children's language with clear and practical activities on real data sets to be carried out by students, commentaries from the author, reviews of previous experiments on child language and the introduction to further theoretical concepts to expand the readers' knowledge of each area.
Keeping the order of the areas covered in Section A, B1 explores Child Directed Speech in a more detailed way. Two activities are provided in which readers can analyze adult-child interactions and then read the author's comments on them. As for child phonology, B2 guides the reader through consonant simplification processes and presents real data to work on. B3 expands the readers' theoretical knowledge of over-extensions and presents a practical activity with some examples to analyze. Regarding morphological development, B4 analyzes the derivational processes in children's lexical innovations and provides a commentary on the data set. B5 presents data for syntactic analysis. This unit introduces the reader to the notion of ''Mean Length of Utterance'' (MLU) and how to calculate it and encourages students to calculate the MLU of a child using the data set provided. Two more activities with their corresponding commentaries are provided on the production of telegraphic speech and the distinction between lexical and functional categories and on the stages of the acquisition of negative structures. In B6, data on the acquisition of communicative competence are analyzed. More specifically, data sets which deal with the use of appropriate registers and politeness and the use of classroom discourse are examined. B7 has a look at the development of spelling and sets of written data are commented on, on the basis of the notions of phonetic and orthographic spelling. Finally, B8 focuses on the use of vernacular and standard dialects in the classroom and provides data sets of African-American Vernacular English and Standard English and a guided contrastive analysis of the two dialects.
Section C, ''Exploration: Data for Investigation'', offers the reader data sets for her own analysis through the suggested activities. This section also contains some commentaries from the author and a number of descriptions, suggestions and practical guidelines for students' research projects. At the end of each unit a list of specialized readings is available for students to expand their knowledge in each area.
C1 provides an overview of the research paradigms in child language research. The features of longitudinal and cross-sectional studies are described, the CHILDES database is introduced and a number of guidelines for experimental work with children are outlined. This unit also includes three investigation activities which invite the reader to explore the CHILDES database, consider language acquisition in exceptional circumstances and carry out an experimental research project on child directed speech.
Five phonological data sets are included in C2 which invite the reader to pursue practical analyses of utterances which display two types of phonological impairment, a dissociation between phonological and phonetic ability, simplification processes and a fronting process. Three investigation activities are proposed in this unit to develop research projects on children's awareness of their own pronunciations, the phonological differences and similarities in 'baby talk' and nicknames between English and other languages and the children's pronunciation of their first words according to their parents.
As for the children's lexicons, C3 examines our awareness of the kind of information that is stored in our mental lexicon, children's self-repairs and their implications for what might constitute their developing lexicons and children's causative and opposite relations among words, through three data sets and four practical exercises. Similarly to the previous units, three investigation projects are proposed about overextensions in children's comprehension, children's understanding of spatial adjectives and the features of word definitions aimed at children.
Two data sets and two corresponding activities of analysis are provided in C4 which exemplify the children's creations of agent-instrument compounds and the use of conversion processes in lexical innovations. The investigation activities proposed in this unit aim at examining children's understanding of English plural formation, of the semantic effects of derivational suffixes and of the concept ''word''.
Dealing with syntactic development, C5 expands the theoretical notions of lexical and functional categories introduced in the previous sections and focuses on the determiner, inflection and complementizer systems. The two data sets in this unit encourage students to compare the syntactic knowledge of two children of different ages and to explore the impaired syntactic production of a 7 year-old child. The research projects in this unit involve the study of adult perception of child syntax and children's use and understanding of negation and wh-questions.
In unit C6, children's conversational skills are analyzed. Students are presented with data for the analysis of children's politeness and use of directives and the investigation activities deal with the kind of directives that adults address to children, the children's perception of politeness and a cross-cultural study of children's discourse.
C7 provides a theoretical overview of the features of spoken and written language and of the stages involved in learning to write. Two sets of written child data, a diary written by a 7 year-old girl and several descriptions of a horse by a number of 7 year-old classmates are included in the unit for the reader to analyze the influence of oral speech on written language and the style and structures used by children when writing. The three experimental tasks invite students to study written pieces by 5-7 year-olds, to explore children's awareness of printing and punctuation conventions and to reflect on the implications that computers and electronic communication have for literacy.
The final unit in section C, C8, presents data to analyze the role of conversational interaction in child second language acquisition. The first experimental project proposed aims at exploring the bilingual children's attitudes to being bilingual. The second investigation activity encourages students to test the arbitrary relation between a word and the object that it designates in bilingual children as opposed to monolingual children. Finally, the reader is invited to analyze and evaluate the attitudes to Standard English and Vernacular varieties as conveyed by the press in an English-speaking country.
Section D, ''Extension: Readings in Language Acquisition'', provides eight essential readings in the field of child language which deal with the eight areas covered in each section. The articles or extracts from books by Neil Smith, David Messer, Roger Brown or Richard Cromer among others are introduced with a brief summary from the author. At the end of each reading, students are provided with questions, some activities and further issues to consider and reflect on the content of each article in relation to the previous sections of the book.
Child Language offers a comprehensive introductory overview of first language acquisition perfectly suitable as a textbook for undergraduate courses and also highly recommended for graduate students and lecturers as it provides the reader with useful and relevant suggestions of research projects and activities to enlarge the students' knowledge on the area. The book covers all aspects of child language including grammatical, lexical and phonological development as well as social, attitudinal and literacy aspects of language use which are too often neglected in this kind of textbook but which thoroughly contribute to an accurate understanding of language development. Being an introductory textbook, the book remains remarkably neutral as far as theoretical perspectives and methodological considerations are concerned, giving the novice reader the opportunity to freely explore what the literature has to offer.
In order to evaluate the book's strengths and weaknesses more specifically, this section makes use of six criteria provided by Brown (2001) which outline the essential features that a university level textbook should have: (a) scope, (b) sequence and organization, (c) contents (up-to-date information and knowledge and quality of the examples provided), (d) the readers' needs and background knowledge, (e) formatting and (f) goals and overall quality.
In my view, the intended scope of the book is thoroughly covered. Not only does it provide students with the basic concepts in language development but it also gives them an overview of social aspects of language acquisition and includes the notion of bilingualism, which is indeed very much present in our lives. Each area introduced in section A is then expanded, clarified and exemplified in detail with activities, practical exercises and real data in sections B and C. Section D enables students to face academic literature by relating it to the topics introduced through the book. Yet more space should be devoted to reviewing the existing approaches to language acquisition in unit A1. The description of nativist and empiricist approaches requires a bit more elaboration, considering that the book introduces students to the field of language acquisition. Also in section A, all units provide definitions and explanations of very basic concepts, such as ''phoneme'' or ''morpheme'', in all areas except for the syntactic development unit, which, apart from introducing the notion of Aspect, assumes that students are familiar with all other syntactic notions and labels.
As for the organization of the book, the ''two-dimensional'' structure of the book enables the reader to choose the study style that best suits her. Some students might prefer to read the book vertically, though it might be difficult for students to delve into one particular area of language development. Reading it horizontally, students can concentrate on different aspects of the same area before moving on to the next, which facilitates the students' understanding of the issue. The fact that the content of the book is divided into four separate sections for each area is clear and effective in that it allows the students to know where they are and what to expect at all times. However, section C, which aims at providing students with real data, also introduces a number of theoretical concepts. The reader might expect this type of information in Section A and might be confused at coming across new theoretical concepts in the section devoted to real data. These concepts are always relevant and necessary for students to be able to analyze the data but it might be easier for students to find all theoretical references together in such a structured book.
As regards to content, the book is just what students require to complement their lectures on language acquisition and access real data. The practical exercises and activities as well as the author's commentaries prove helpful and extremely useful for students to assimilate and apply the more theoretical issues. Likewise, the practical guidelines and suggestions for research projects are detailed and motivating and the further reading sections encourage students to access more advanced literature on the field. The examples and illustrations are relevant, clear and engaging and the fact that the author shares personal experiences related to child language development with the reader makes the issues discussed more accessible. A final comment related to content is that although the book focuses on the acquisition of English and a contrastive analysis with other languages is beyond the scope of the book, some examples from other languages would have been relevant for students.
As for the references included in the text, one gets the impression that the book relies sometimes on references which might be not so relevant in the current debates in language acquisition, such as Radford (1990) in C5 and the claim that functional categories are entirely absent in the early stages of language acquisition. Some other references, although relevant and justified, date back to the 70s and 80s or even earlier and could be replaced by more recent literature on the issue.
The readers' needs and background are well taken care of in that the amount and level of information and its exposure is suitable for undergraduate students. The great number of examples, exercises, sample data and references to general introductory books all cover the students' needs on the subject and help the learning process. As for the author's commentaries on the activities proposed, they are extremely useful and necessary. Although all activities in Section B are followed by a helpful commentary, not all units in Section C have them, which might leave some questions unanswered.
The formatting of the book is clear and well-organized and the data are clearly laid out and attractive to the reader. Only a couple of inaccuracies could be found, on pages 61 and 93.
There is no doubt that the aim of this resource book has been fully accomplished and that its overall quality makes it worth reading. Engaging as it is, Child Language opens the door of the fascinating area of language acquisition to students who might think that child language is mere imitation and as such, not worth investigating. Most importantly, the reader is not a passive recipient of knowledge in this book but is invited to actively observe the language acquisition process and experience real data.
Brown, D. (2001) Teaching by principles: An integrated approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.
Brown, R. (1973) A First Language: The Early Stages. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Radford, A. (1990) Syntactic Theory and the Acquisition of Syntax. Oxford: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Elisabet Pladevall is an Assistant Lecturer in the Departament de Filologia Anglesa i Germanística in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain. Her research interests are mainly first and second language acquisition and syntax. She carried out an MA in Linguistics in University College London and an MA in English Studies in Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her two MA theses were on First Language Acquisition (English and Catalan) and she is currently writing her PhD Thesis on Child and Adult Second Language Subject Development.