By Sari Pietikäinen, Alexandra Jaffe, Helen Kelly-Holmes, Nik Coupland
Sociolinguistics from the Periphery "presents a fascinating book about change: shifting political, economic and cultural conditions; ephemeral, sometimes even seasonal, multilingualism; and altered imaginaries for minority and indigenous languages and their users"
AUTHORS: Steinberg, Danny D.; Sciarini, Natalia V. TITLE: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (2nd edition) PUBLISHER: Pearson Longman YEAR: 2006
Clare Wright, Department of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University, United Kingdom
The second edition of this Introduction to the rapidly changing field of psycholinguistics research is a timely update to the first edition published in 1993. The book is aimed at a university level readership, whether students or academics from a variety of fields, from psychology and philosophy to second language teaching and speech pathology. The questions raised by the book provide the foundation for a standard textbook on language acquisition and cognition: how do children learn to speak and read their native language, is language unique to humans, does language influence culture, how does language work in the brain? Using case studies and referring to a broad range of both well-established research and very recent studies, the authors explore the debates that lie behind these questions. Their stated aim is thus to allow a reader with ''no specific knowledge of any topic … presupposed'' to reach the ''highest level of understanding of the topics considered in an engaging way'' (page xiii).
There are three parts to the volume, first-language learning, second-language learning, and language, mind and brain. Each part is wide-ranging, and aims to cover the major questions of the field in line with the goals set out above. These questions are often addressed cross-linguistically, although the predominant focus is on American research and English as the target language.
However, going beyond the remit of a standard introductory textbook, the authors present their own views on the issues they discuss, in an often personal and informal way, throughout the book, with particular emphasis on a critique of the ''mystical aura'' (page 27) of generative Chomskyan linguistics. The authors conclude the book with an outline, new to this edition, of their own theory of grammar – ''Natural Grammar''.
Part One: First Language Learning
Chapter 1 covers how children first learn to produce and understand language, referring to well-known early studies, such as Leopold (1953), Klima & Bellugi (1966), Brown (1973), which described language acquisition in children. The authors reiterate their own theory for the acquisition order of consonants and vowels (first proposed in Steinberg 1982), based on ''visibility of articulators'' and ''ease of articulation'' (page 5); similarly for morpheme acquisition, they suggest there are three variables based on ''universal and accepted'' (page 11) psychological learning principles, namely ''ease of observability of referent, meaningfulness of referent and distinctiveness of the sound signal that indicates the referent'' (page 13). The authors suggest, for example, that the plural marker ''s'' in English is learned before the third person ''s'', since person is more abstract, and therefore less observable and less meaningful than number. Justification for these principles is, however, rather unconvincing, with little empirical evidence offered, although they appear to have some similarities with Slobin's (1985) more widely known and researched Operating Principles of language acquisition.
Chapter 2 describes the nature and acquisition of sign language, with informative sections on the history of teaching deaf children, particularly in the USA, and on the distinction between speech-based sign languages and language-independent sign languages such as American Sign Language or British Sign Language. The chapter seems, however, to have a primarily sociolinguistic purpose in focusing on ''the problem'' (page 54) of how deaf people can communicate with hearing people, and the lack of success (page 55) in teaching deaf children to read once they are at school. This is no doubt a pressing question in certain quarters and the authors promote a ''Written Language Approach'' as a solution (based on the first author's research in the 1980s, where reading English was successfully taught simultaneously with sign language to pre-school deaf children). Evidence of similar research in other languages would usefully strengthen the psycholinguistic principles rather briefly alluded to in this approach.
The discussion of reading continues in Chapter 3, where some cross-linguistic comparisons are made between sound-based systems representing phonemes or syllables (such as most Western European languages, Japanese, Korean) and meaning-based systems representing morphemes such as Chinese. Much of the chapter is devoted to the so-called ''whole-word vs. phonics/decoding'' controversy within reading English with the authors strongly on the side of the ''whole-word approach''. This emphasis on the separation of reading from learning sounds of letters leads to the main purpose of this chapter: to set out details of the first author's Reading Programme briefly discussed in chapter 2, through which children between the ages of 2 and 4 can be taught to read words and sentences, although there is little theoretical analysis of the psycholinguistic processes involved.
The concluding chapters in this first section return to more core psycholinguistic issues: the notion of a ''critical period'' for language acquisition, and whether language is uniquely human.
Chapter 4 examines cases of wild (or ''feral'') and isolated children, examining how far children deprived of language may or not may not learn to speak. The well known cases in the research literature are discussed, including Helen Keller, and Genie, who was isolated until the age of 13, as well as more recent cases such as Edik, found in the Ukraine in 1999, who had been raised by dogs. The evidence from these cases for some kind of critical period for language learning is assessed. The authors conclude that any early exposure to some kind of language input, even for children who do not hear (such as Helen Keller), is indeed critical to language development. However, the clinical evidence is not discussed in depth, and there is no evaluation of the psycholinguistic concepts and theories involved in these cases – indeed the authors warn against drawing any firm conclusions about theories of a specific critical age for language from so few and so traumatised children.
Chapter 5, on animals and language learning, rounds off the first section with a descriptive account of various well-known experiments to teach human language to animals such as gorillas, chimpanzees or parrots. The authors' conclusion, that animals ''have only a rudimentary language ability'' (page 118), follows the widely held view of language as a uniquely human phenomenon (see a letter to LinguistList by Jackendoff et al. 2006).
The second part focuses on Second Language Learning; it adopts the assumption that children are monolingual, and that a second language is therefore an ''additional'' psycholinguistic burden, managed differently by children and adults.
In Chapter 6, the authors divide factors involved in second language acquisition into two categories: psychological and social, with suggestions of how these factors might play different roles for children than for adults.
Psychological factors are simplified into three areas: intellectual capacity, memory and motor skills. In intellectual terms, as the authors see it, acquiring the grammar of a second language is seen as based either on explication, to be taught in the learner's first language (page 124), or on induction, or self-analysis. A learner's capacity to learn either explicatively or inductively changes with age, with children under 7 least likely to learn explicatively, in comparison to children over 7 or adults. The authors conclude, however, that ''so long as the structures involved are not far beyond the learner's level of syntactic understanding, there is a good chance that the learner can discover the rules by self-analysis'' (page 125). The role of memory is briefly touched on, although with no mention of the different models and theories of memory which are crucial to this topic, such as Ullmann's (2006) model of procedural/declarative memory, or Baddeley's (2003) model of Working Memory. Children's and adults' differing motor skills are then considered, albeit briefly, for their role in acquiring successful pronunciation, something which is often harder for adults.
The authors then review some research on social factors suggesting that motivation and attitude are both key to successful second language learning, and whether classroom or natural learning provides a better learning environment.
This, at times speculatively written, overview of what is a highly debated field (Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2000) concludes that there is no demonstrated critical age for second language learning, in either syntax, or, more contentiously, in pronunciation.
Chapter 7, on second-language teaching methods deals with what could be seen as an unusual choice of topic in most psycholinguistic textbooks, but is justified by the authors as offering ''a chance to see how ideas of human language and learning interconnect'' (page 138). The bulk of the chapter provides a history of various teaching methods (such as Grammar-Translation, Audio-Lingual, Communicative Language Teaching, Computer-Assisted Language Learning). Some passing references are made to the psycholinguistic theories of learning at the core of each method, but a reader unfamiliar with the concepts involved would remain unclear why this chapter is included. If the discussion were greatly summarised and synthesised into the impact of learning strategies for bilingualism in chapter 8, this would make for greater logical coherence and relevance.
Chapter 8 attempts to provide a stronger conceptual framework for the two preceding descriptive chapters. However, as in the chapter on sign language, the ultimate motivation for the chapter appears as much socio-political as psycholinguistic, taking as the starting point the ''controversy''(page 161) whether learning a second language, particularly at a young age, ''is a good idea'' or not. This question is then examined through a brief history of attitudes to bilingualism, as well as research into different case studies of bilingual children. The chapter concludes with a brief overview of strategies for becoming a ''better second language learner''. References to the research literature remain tantalisingly brief, and with no mention of the ground-breaking psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research in this field since the 1990s (see for example Paradis 2004).
Part 3 returns to more core issues of psycholinguistic research, such as language and the brain (chapter 12), but also extends the discussion to the more philosophical debate over how language may affect or be affected by culture (chapter 9). However the heart of this section lies in chapters 10 and 11, where the authors finally clarify many of their previous passing criticisms of the innate or Chomskyan paradigm of language (Chapter 10) and suggest instead a ''radical new theory of grammar'' – Natural Grammar (chapter 11).
Chapter 9 sets out the traditional Whorfian debate over whether language is shaped by culture, with helpful synopses of the research by Whorf in the 1930s and Bloom in the 1980s (amongst others cited) which led to certain beliefs that language determines one's cultural or social beliefs, and that constructs such as time, space and colour were not universal but shaped by their expression in different languages. The authors provide philosophical and empirical evidence from more recent research against these ideas, concluding with the truism that language cannot precede thought, otherwise multilingual people would have ''as many distinct world views'' as languages (page 193).
Chapter 10 begins with a short discursive section on different types of epistemology underpinning different views on language and language development – behaviourism, led by philosophers and linguists such as Quine and Skinner, rationalism (or ''Mentalism'' (page 200), led by Chomsky, Searle and the authors themselves. This section, although a little confusing, allows the authors to lead into their main focus: a critique of Chomskyan innatism, or generativism, as expressed in three of Chomsky's most influential works from the 1960s to the 1980s. The four main premises addressed are ''Plato's problem'' or why children learn language despite degenerate and meagre language input; the ease and speed of child language acquisition; the modularity of language from other cognitive faculties; and the principles and parameters model of linguistic competence. These areas have been widely debated, and the authors cite perhaps the best known of the debates, when Chomsky met with Piaget, Putnam and other notable thinkers (Piatelli-Palmarini 1980).
There is a wealth of readily available evidence for and against Chomsky's premises for the existence of a ''Universal Grammar'', and the authors' objections overlap with counter-arguments made elsewhere (see, for example, Pullum and Scholz 2002). ''Plato's problem'' of degenerate input may be less extensive than originally thought, as the rise of corpus linguistics and computational linguistics allows researchers to identify the frequency of even complex syntactic structures in the input. However, the authors' arguments against the other premises are based on claims, no longer made by most generative theorists, that knowing the universal and formal rules of syntax is equivalent to understanding how languages are learnt and used by any given individual. The authors' objections to the notion of multiple parameter settings, for example, are no longer germane.
In Chapter 11, the authors propose a ''new unique psychological conception'' – a theory of Natural Grammar (page 217). Having swept away Universal Grammar as ''psychologically contradictory and invalid'' (page 221), the authors also dismiss, with little in-depth analysis, non-generative linguistic theories, such as Bates and MacWhinney's (1982) functional or connectionist grammar. These theories are seen by the authors as ''inadequate'' (page 230), as they are too dependent on models based on speech production. They fail, according to the authors, to capture the ''primary drive of language acquisition'' (page 232) – speech comprehension.
The authors propose that a child's mind ''is primed for comprehension'', allowing the child to associate a sound with a lexical concept: the sound ''cat'' elicits the meaning ''cat'' by association with an experience of the object -''or some representation'' of it (page 232). Syntactic rules to infer arguments and predicates are similarly acquired through association of known lexical concepts (''John'' ''give'', ''Tom'', ''the ball'') with an experience when ''John gave Tom the ball''. Complexities underlying negation, relative clauses, passives, are again learnt ''by the process of guessing the meaning of the unknown speech constructions'' (page 235). The child has, therefore, by the age of around 3 years, developed a ''ready syntax'' or Comprehension Grammar (page 238).
Speech production, in turn, derives from the child developing production strategies and functions, located within a ''Production Module''. The Production Module interacts with the Comprehension Grammar to allow the child to produce ''syntactically sound sentences'' (page 239). The final element of this schema is a ''Central Thought Processor'', briefly outlined as ''a primary pre-linguistic entity with prepositional formats, arguments and predicates, as well as innate analysing processes'' (page 239). With this schema, the authors confidently reject the pessimism expressed by Jerry Fodor (1976) that a model of comprehension would take at least ''500 years'' to build (page 241).
I do not share the authors' confidence, not least since there is inadequate foundation given here for an effective research agenda. No theoretical justification or empirical evidence is provided on their generalisations about the ''psychological operations'' (page 230) of the various elements of this suggested schema. Nevertheless, I do share their commitment to the need for theories that connect language comprehension, processing and production. There is a range of interesting work increasingly being done that crosses linguistic paradigms in this way, such as Truscott and Sharwood Smith's (2004) Acquisition by Processing Theory.
The final chapter appears somewhat as an afterthought, providing a brief overview, rather unconnected, of key neurolinguistic areas that play a major role in understanding psycholinguistic research, such as the roles of the hemispheres of the brain, language impairment such as Wernicke's and Broca's aphasia, and developments in the methods of investigating brain and language, such as Event-Related Potentials (ERPs). Greater explanation of these important areas, and more central placing in the textbook, would highlight the centrality of these topics to the psycholinguistic field.
To conclude, the book provides a lively and accessible introduction to both mainstream and less central topics in psycholinguistics. The personal and often informal tone in many of the sections should appeal to most students new to the field. However, there are a number of limitations and omissions that undermine the book's opening claim to ''bring the reader to the highest understanding'' of the issues involved.
The structure and content throughout the book lacks the clarity and range expected of a textbook introducing such a highly complex and ever changing field (see in contrast Gleason and Ratner 1998, Obler and Gjerlow 1998, de Bot et al. 2005). Furthermore, this second edition changes the order of the chapters, and omits discussion points and suggested further reading for each chapter, which gave the first edition greater cogency and accessibility. Certain sections have been updated more than others (such as the section on research into critical period limitations on second language learning in Chapter 6), but overall, the text relies on research predating the first edition, some of which no longer has high priority on current research agendas (such as the critique of Chomsky which forms the backbone of the book). Furthermore, several key contributions to psycholinguistic research are noticeable for their absence, such as the work of Slobin (1985) and Tomasello (e.g. 2000) in first language development, and Pienemann's (1998) Processability Theory in second language development.
In sum, this book serves less as an introduction to the field of psycholinguistics, and more as a summary of Steinberg's important and wide-ranging contributions to the field of first and second language learning over the past 30 years. Provided the reader is aware of this specific purpose, this book can be recommended to first year students or other readers interested in the demands and fascination of psycholinguistic research.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Clare Wright is in her second year of Ph.D. study at Newcastle University, UK. Her research, funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council, is investigating the role of working memory in second language acquisition for Chinese learners of English (supervised by Professor Vivian Cook and Dr Martha Young-Scholten).