LINGUIST List 21.4899

Sun Dec 05 2010

Review: Language Acquisition: Saxton (2010)

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        1.     Rita Finkbeiner , Child Language: Acquisition and Development

Message 1: Child Language: Acquisition and Development
Date: 05-Dec-2010
From: Rita Finkbeiner <>
Subject: Child Language: Acquisition and Development
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AUTHOR: Saxton, MatthewTITLE: Child LanguageSUBTITLE: Acquisition and DevelopmentPUBLISHER: Sage PublicationsYEAR: 2010

Rita Finkbeiner, Department of German, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz


The purpose of this textbook is to provide an introduction to the field of childlanguage, including its central topics, history and latest research. Theintended audience being ''students of psychology with an interest in childlanguage'' (p. xvi), the author assumes no background knowledge of linguistictheory and terminology, and all specialist terms are either introduced in themain text, elaborated on in text boxes, or explained in a glossary at the end ofthe book. A central issue throughout the book is the nature-nurture debate, alsoreferred to in the subtitle of the book, ''acquisition and development''. Theterms reflect two different ''cultures'' in child language research: On the onehand, research in the tradition of Chomsky, according to whom language issomething innate (''acquisition''), and on the other hand, research focusing onthe learnability of language (''development''), with the usage-based approachbeing the most prominent account.

The book is divided into ten chapters, followed by two appendices, a glossary oflinguistic terms, answers to exercises, references, and a separate author andsubject index. Every chapter starts with an overview, outlining what the studentis expected to know after reading, proceeds with the main text, providing thearguments and evidence advanced in the field, and concludes with a summary (''ina nutshell''), further reading and links to websites. Additional pedagogicfeatures are boxes, exercises, and discussion points.

Chapter 1, ''Prelude: Landmarks in the Landscape of Child Language'', presentsmajor landmarks in language development at the levels of phonology, vocabulary,morphology and syntax, and introduces the nature-nurture problem. The child'slinguistic abilities are contextualized by giving an overview of the child'sachievements in other developmental domains, and the remainder of the book ispresented.

Chapter 2, ''Can Animals Acquire Human Language? Shakespeare's Typewriter'', dealswith the question of whether language is a uniquely human trait. In raising thisquestion, the chapter seeks to clarify ''what, precisely, is unique, and possiblybiologically determined, about the human capacity to acquire language'' (p. 27).The author discusses issues such as the difference between language, talk andcommunication; forms and limitations of animal language; and broad vs. narrowdefinitions of the language faculty.

Chapter 3, ''The Critical Period Hypothesis: Now or Never?'', considers thequestion whether the capacity to acquire language is confined to a specificperiod of time early on in development, a question that has been at the centerof language acquisition research over many years. The chapter evaluates the keyfeatures assumed to define the critical period, drawing on early experimentalresearch. The methodological problems of investigating the critical periodhypothesis give rise to a critical discussion of experimental designs in childlanguage research. The chapter also considers age effects in second languagelearning.

Chapter 4, ''Input and Interaction: Tutorials for Toddlers'', deals with the roleof input and interaction in language acquisition, thus shifting to the ''nurture''side of the debate. With respect to input, the issue of child directed speech(CDS) and its modifications at the levels of phonology, vocabulary, morphologyand syntax are discussed. With respect to interaction, the role of imitation forlanguage acquisition, especially the role of adult recast, are examined.

Chapter 5, ''Language in the First Year: Breaking the Sound Barrier'', looks atthe question ''how the child gets started on the task of language acquisition''(p. 109). The focus is on phonology and speech perception and the question howthe child manages to discriminate phonemes and words in the ''river of speech''(p. 109). Issues discussed are specialization towards the native language, wordsegmentation and early grammar.

Chapter 6, ''The Developing Lexicon: What's in a Name?'', turns from phonologicalto lexical development and word learning. The chapter discusses possible causesfor overextension, investigates different explanations for the so-called''vocabulary spurt'', and considers the role of conceptual biases as solutions toQuine's ''gavagai'' problem: how the child is able to figure out what a wordrefers to, given the infinite possibilities.

Chapter 7, ''The Acquisition of Morphology: Linguistic Lego'', moves to theacquisition of morphology, looking at central issues in the fields ofinflectional morphology and word formation. In the field of inflectionalmorphology, the focus is on research on regular and irregular past tenseacquisition and its two rival approaches -- the single-route and the dual-routeapproach. In the field of word formation, the author focuses on the acquisitionof compounding, referring to the latest research in the area. A third issue inthis chapter is development in the school years, when children can acquire amore explicit awareness of morphology.

Chapter 8, ''Linguistic Nativism: To the Grammar Born'', deals with theacquisition of syntax from a nativist perspective. The chapter introduces theconcept of Universal Grammar (UG) and provides the reader with the mainarguments in favor of the idea that UG is innate, focusing on ''poverty ofstimulus'' as one of its most prominent, but also most controversial arguments.The author presents a balanced view of nativism, however critically pointing outproblematic aspects like the poor support of the innateness hypothesis byempirical evidence.

Chapter 9, ''The Usage-based Approach: Making it Up as You Go Along'', takes theopposite perspective, presenting the usage-based view on syntactic acquisition.The chapter outlines the main assumptions of this approach, such as theimportance of social communication for language development, the gradualdevelopment of adult-like language, or the assumption that it is entireutterances rather than words that constitute the child's earliest speech output.The chapter provides a balanced view of the usage-based approach, howevercritically pointing out problems in explaining (constraints on) child productivity.

Chapter 10, ''You Say Nature, I Say Nurture: Better Call the Calling Off Off'',reviews the ideas presented in the preceding chapters, discusses them within theframework of the nature-nurture debate, and seeks to develop an integrated viewof both concepts. The author shows in which ways ''nature'' might interact with''nurture'' and vice versa. As a practical exercise, the reader is asked tocompose her own timeline of child language, by extracting key features fromevery chapter. The chapter ends with an outline of the limitations andpossibilities of methodology in child language research.


The author fully succeeds in his aim to provide an introduction to childlanguage for students without previous knowledge in the field of linguistics.The book is very well-written and keeps an easy tone even when matters get morecomplicated. It is carefully structured along the lines of the nature-nurturedebate and the linguistic domains of phonology, lexicon, morphology, and syntax.But not only beginners, also advanced students in the fields of linguistics,psychology, or education will enjoy this book, because its organization makes itpossible to individually choose topics of interest, or alternatively skip topicsthat are already known. The book may also be used by graduate students as avaluable resource, providing references to the latest research, comprehensiveauthor and subject indexes, and useful websites. For use in the classroom, thediscussion points to some of the topics are of particular interest. It wouldhave been nice, though, to have more of them. Exercises in every chapter, withan answer list in the appendix, can be used for self-study. Yet the mostimpressive thing about this book, in my opinion, is the way the author succeedsin giving a thorough introduction to the different topics and, at the same time,keeping a critical, argumentative style throughout the book, encouraging thereader to adopt a critical stance herself. As two minor disadvantages, it can bementioned, first, that the glossary sometimes seems to be too limited by therequirement not to assume previous knowledge. For example, the term ''complement''is defined as ''an expression that combines with a head word to form a syntacticphrase'' (exemplified, in the subsequent text, by the noun phrase ''the man''), theterm ''head'' being typed in bold style (p. 262). Yet under the glossary entry''head'', the reader only finds the hint ''see complement'' (p. 263). Second, it isregrettable that the issue of pragmatic acquisition is not included in the book.In recent years, there is a growing interest in this field, with a large amountof experimental studies being carried out. This disadvantage is, on the otherhand, quite understandable, given the natural limits of the textbook format.


Rita Finkbeiner, PhD, is research assistant at the German department at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. She is currently working on a project on first language acquisition of compounding. Her main research interests are in the areas of semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, phraseology and multilingualism. She teaches introductory courses in German linguistics.

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