LINGUIST List 11.59

Sat Jan 15 2000

Review: Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff: The Origins of Grammar

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  1. Dina Belyayeva, Review of Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff

Message 1: Review of Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff

Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2000 11:20:20 �0500
From: Dina Belyayeva <>
Subject: Review of Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff

Hirsh-Pasek K. & Golinkoff, R. M. (1996). The Origins of Grammar: 
Evidence from Early Language Comprehension. MIT Press. 201 pages. 

Reviewed by Dina Belyayeva, CUNY 


This book provides a thorough description of a new methodological 
tool, the Intermodal Preferential Looking Paradigm, and outlines a 
Coalition Model of Language Comprehension. 

Chapter 1. Introduction. 

The introduction draws attention to the overwhelming complexity of a 
task that children undertake to learn a language. The authors 
present a very brief overview of presumptions held by prior theories 
of language acquisition in order to set a premise for further 
discussion. They contend that only a "biased learner" who relies on 
varied coalitions of input sources can cope with the task of such 
enormity. They also introduce the reader to the structure of the 
book and the goals they pursue. 

Chapter 2. Theories of Language Acquisition. 

In this chapter the authors provide a taxonomy of pre-1996 language 
acquisition theories. They use extreme nativist and empiricist 
positions as the opposite ends of the three continua that represent 
the source of initial language structure (innate vs. constructed), 
the type of input (purely linguistic vs. environmentally 
constructed categories) and the mechanisms employed in the 
acquisition process (domain-specific vs. domain-general). The 
authors caution against the literal interpretation of the proposed 
taxonomy, since the primary purpose of their effort was not to 
enter into the alliance with any of the reviewed positions but 
rather to use "previously undiscovered consensus among the 
theories" in order to establish the types of input that help a 
child to take the language learning process off the ground. 

Chapter 3. The Intermodal Preferential Looking Paradigm. 

The chapter is devoted to the detailed description of the Intermodal 
Preferential Looking Paradigm introduced in this book. The paradigm 
represents a new methodology for assessing early language 
comprehension. The beginning of this chapter provides a review of 
methods used to assess language production and comprehension in 
nascent learners. The primarily focus is given to methods for 
studying language comprehension. The authors outline general 
advantages of using these methods in language development research. 
They contend that these methods provide more accurate account of 
the child's emerging language system, capture the time-window when 
processing of a particular structure begins before the child 
attempts to produce it, and can be used as a means to control the 
child's ability to comprehend certain grammatical structures. In 
addition to the above advantages, the Intermodal Preferential 
Paradigm offers two other benefits that make this method especially 
attractive to anyone working on early language assessment. The 
method requires "no overt action on the part of the child" and can 
be used to assess the knowledge of grammatical relationships via 
presentation of "dynamic" stimuli. The method is based on the 
procedure that makes use of the child's visual fixation responses; 
that is, whether the child looks more at one stimulus than at the 
other. It was adapted from the work of Spelker (1979) who studied 
intermodal perception in infants. 


Here is a much simplified outline of the paradigm. During an 
experimental session an infant is seated on a parent's lap between 
two television screens. A concealed speaker plays a linguistic 
stimulus that matches an action going on on one of the screens. An 
experimenter's task is to register whether the child allocates more 
attention to the action that matches the auditory stimulus. The rest 
of the chapter provides a detailed account of the general 
experimental procedure, apparatus, materials, experimental 
variables, participant solicitation, and the criteria used for 
discarding data. 

Chapters 4, 5 & 6 present a series of studies with the two general 

(1) to determine the time-window when infants become sensitive to 
meaning differences in various linguistic structures, and 

(2) the type of input that they chose to rely on at every given 
time-window. The purpose of the study described in Chapter 4 was 
to identify whether infants who have only single-word utterances in 
their repertoire can isolate sentence constituents (e.g., verb 
phrase). To test this processing ability, the infants were 
presented with two similar-looking video events. For example, on one 
screen they saw a woman kissed a ball while moving a set of keys on 
the foreground, whereas on the other screen a different woman 
kissed the keys while moving the ball in the foreground. The 
auditory stimulus "She is kissing the keys" was played to test 
whether infants can identify the verb phase by directing more of 
their attention to the matching action on one of the screens. A 
series of experimental conditions were introduced to control for 
the factors such as name familiarity, action typicality, sentence-
final position. The results revealed that 13- to 15-month-old 
infants were able to process the verb phrase without reliance on 
their extralinguistic knowledge that could be be manifested in 
better performance on the sentences describing more typical events. 

Chapter 5 describes a series of experiments that tested the ability 
single-word speakers to comprehend word order in active reversible 
sentences. (e.g. "Look! Big Bird is feeding Cookie Monster!") 
Although the results demonstrated infants' comprehension of word 
order, it was not entirely clear whether the infants carried out 
syntactic (subject-verb-object) or semantic (agent-action-patient) 

Chapter 6 presents a series of experiments that were conducted with 
the purpose to distinguish between the two types of analyses. 
Children were presented with sentences hat contrasted transitive 
and intransitive frames of the same action verbs. (E.g., "Big Bird 
is bending Cookie Monster!" vs "Big Bird and Cookie Monster are 
bending!"/"Big Bird is bending with Cookie Monster!") The authors 
used the cross- sectional comparison of three age groups, 18-, 24- 
and 29-month-old children. The results revealed that only the two 
older groups were able to override the "agent- action-patient" 
interpretation of word order by demonstrating their preference for 
the intransitive event. This ability was lost when intransitive 
frames were presented in the bare sentence condition, without the 
grammatical markers such as the preposition "with" and the plural 
form of the auxiliary verb "are". (E.g., "Watch Big Bird and Cookie 
Monster bending!") The developmental picture that emerges from the 
study suggests that older children are able to switch from greater 
reliance on semantic processing to more prominent reliance on 
syntactic processing when additional structural information was 
made available to them. 

Chapter 7. A Coalition Model of Language Comprehension. 

In this chapter the authors recapitulate the experimental finding 
within the new theoretical framework. The framework was proposed 
with the purpose to answer the question that is considered to be 
the source of major disagreement between the language acquisition 
theories. What inputs drive the language-learning system? The 
framework uses language comprehension as its major functional 
element. Along the developmental continuum, comprehension evolves 
from internalization to interpretation. Internalization involves 
extraction of "acoustic packages" from the speech stream. 

At this point of development (phase I) infants form associations 
between perceptual correlates that provide building blocks for 
future interpretations. Phase II marks transition from 
internalization to interpretation when children use their ability to 
parse the speech sequence to "carve the observed world into events 
and sequences." At this phase they rely on redundant cues from the 
coalition of environmental, contextual, social, prosodic, semantic 
and syntactic cues with a bias toward semantic analysis. Phase III 
represents an advanced stage in language development. Children 
become less dependent on correlated cues in the input and gradually 
switch to relatively independent syntactic analysis. Although the 
cues are available at all times, they are differentially weighted 
in the tree phases. In Phase I children are biased to focus on 
prosodic cues, whereas in later phases (II & III) they are biased 
to rely on semantic and syntactic cues, respectively. In conclusion, 
the authors contend that the proposed coalition of cues resolves 
the controversy about the as the driving force that helps to take 
the language learning process off the ground (e.g., the controversy 
between the semantic and syntactic bootstrapping). By achieving 
that they hope to take the discussion "beyond the traditional 
nativist- empiricist dichotomy that permeates much of the field". 


One of the goals that the authors set in the Introduction was "to 
make the domain of language acquisition accessible to psychologist 
through clear and relatively jargon-free exposition." The authors 
achieved that goal. In fact they were so successful in their effort 
that the book can be recommended for a much wider audience. The 
manner in which the book is composed and written makes the 
experimental methodology and theoretical considerations behind it 
highly accessible to anyone interested in the issues related to 
language acquisition. The book in its entirety presents a useful 
supplemental reading for the graduate- level course. Parts of it can 
be used to introduce undergraduate students to the variety of 
theoretical positions permeating the field. The overview of language 
acquisition theories in Chapter 2 offers a concise yet thorough 
reference guide to an array of theoretical issues in language 
acquisition. Exceptional clarity of research objectives and 
painstaking thoroughness in the description of the experimental 
paradigm can be used as a handbook for anyone learning how to 
conduct experimental research in the field of language development. 

The authors were also successful in attaining their primary goals. 
The new method, the Intermodal Preferential Looking Paradigm, was 
proven to offer a tool that would enable a researcher to 
investigate the nascent knowledge of language structure, such as 
sensitivity to constituent structure & verb subcategorization 
frames. Among other advantages mentioned in the book the method 
offers a way to measure duration of infants' attentional states 
without the need to use cumbersome eye tracking equipment. The 
intermediate position that the authors adopted in respect to their 
theoretical affiliation allowed them to take their investigation 
beyond the plateau of the nature-nurture debate. 

There are a few points that I found open for critique. One of them 
is the taxonomy offered in Chapter 2. Although the authors 
explicitly warn against the literal interpretation of their 
hyperbolic dichotomies, I find it difficult to ignore the fact that 
innate and constructed structures are portrayed as the opposite ends 
of the same continuum. Even the most medial position (in respect to 
the position on the nature-nurture spectrum of theories), the 
Emergentist Approach (MacWhinney 1999) would not accept the 
continuum as a way to define its position on the "grammar organ." 

In Chapter 6 the liberal use of the term 'active' (p. 147) entails 
that sentences with intransitive frames are not active sentences. 

In their discussion of the role language comprehension plays in the 
overall cognitive development, the authors claim that mental models 
are constructed via the processes involved in language 
comprehension. Although a serious attempt was made to define the 
notion of a mental model, little ground was provided to 
substantiate that claim. The stronger version of this claim can be 
rooted in the assumption that preverbal infants do not have mental 
models of their own, which is hard to prove. The weaker version may 
be rooted in what constitutes the anatomical basis of language 
capacity. Caplan (1987) in his review of Geschwind's work points 
out that humans are the only species able to form direct 
connections between visual, auditory and somesthetic (i.e., 
sensory) association areas. According to such neural organization, 
"acoustic packaging", the comprehension process of phase I, 
constitutes one type of the stimuli involved in formation of 
cross-modal associations that contribute to construction of mental 

The mechanisms proposed to motivate a transition within and between 
phases (the guided distributional analysis and Bloom's Principles 
of Discrepancy and Elaboration) do not differ significantly in 
respect to their major driving force. In fact, they are essentially 
the same mechanism that has different manifestations at every 
developmental phase due to different cognitive and communicative 
demands at a given stage of language development. 

The above critical remarks do not diminish the significance of the 
proposed model. The reader should bear in mind that the authors 
consider their model as a work in progress. This work could only 
develop out of the new experimental methodology presented in the 


Caplan, D. (1987). Neurolinguistics and Linguistic Aphasiology. 
Cambridge University Press. 

MacWhinney, B. (Ed.). (1999). The Emergence of Language. Lawrence 
Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Mahwah, NJ. 

Spelke, E. (1979). Perceiving bimodally specified events in infancy. 
Developmental Psychology 15, 626-636. 

 About the reviewer 

Dina Belyayeva is a Research Associate at the City University of New 
York. She earned her Ph. D. in Lingusitics at the University of 
Florida. In her doctoral dissertation she proposed a model of the 
bilingual memory that has implications for many language 
acquisition phenomena. Language Acquisition and Bilingualism are 
currently the major areas of her research interests. Other areas of 
interest include semantic memory disorders and models of language 
production and comprehension. 


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