LINGUIST List 12.861

Tue Mar 27 2001

Review: Landau et al., Perception, cognition & language

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  1. Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Review of Landau et al, Perception, cognition, and language

Message 1: Review of Landau et al, Perception, cognition, and language

Date: Tue, 27 Mar 2001 13:46:32 +0800
From: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira <>
Subject: Review of Landau et al, Perception, cognition, and language

Landau, Barbara, John Sabini, John Jonides and Elissa
Newport, eds. (2000). Perception, cognition, and
language. Essays in honor of Henry and Lila Gleitman.
Cambridge, MA & London, MIT Press/ Bradford Books. x+360
pages, ISBN 0-262-12228-6 (HB).

Reviewed by Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, National University
of Singapore

The book contains a Preface, giving the background to
the present collection of essays, and is then divided
into three parts.

Part I, Introduction, traces the itinerary of Henry and
Lila Gleitman, both personal and academic, detailing
their pioneering work within psychology,
psycholinguistics and language acquisition.

Part II, Colleagues and Teachers, contains five
chapters, by Jacob Nachmias, Paul Rozin, Robert A.
Rescorla, John Sabini and Donald S. Lamm, respectively.
The informal style common to all five chapters condones
a joint treatment in this review - at the risk of doing
injustice to the specificity of each contribution. Each
of the authors, ranging from colleagues to students to
publisher, offers a personal episode or a personal view
on both Gleitmans. Chapter 3 includes a more academic
contribution, describing two experiments inspired by
Henry Gleitman, both using laboratory animals, one on
the nature of instrumental learning and one on the
association of outcome and response.

Part III, Perception, Cognition, and Language,
constitutes the bulk of the book, comprising fourteen
chapters. Of these, seven deal with child language
acquisition, five with cognitive processes, one with
emotion and one with creativity in language use. Since
these chapters are not organised in any particular way,
a brief sequential account of each is given below.

Chapter 6 (Elizabeth F. Shipley) deals with the issue of
cognitive identity. In accounting for the
characteristics that may define a 'kind of' a particular
object, two frameworks are discussed: psychological
essentialism, which claims that physical essence is to
be found "in the insides of biological kinds" (p. 82);
and entrenchment, which explains "the development of
categories via the acquisition of entrenchment through
inductive inferences" (p. 83) and the projection of
beliefs. The author then presents an experimental
account of preschoolers' categorisation of objects,
whose results appear to favour entrenchment over
essentialism on several grounds.

Chapter 7 (John Jonides) reports on neuroimaging as a
novel tool in mapping cognitive processes, focusing on
experiments designed to identify elementary components
of working memory. Neuroimaging techniques, providing
"patterns of brain activation that result from some
task" (p.92), are currently at the forefront of
research in cognitive psychology in that they "make it
seem as if the often vague and ephemeral constructs of
psychological theory can now be displayed in neural
tissue." (p.102). Different patterns of brain activation
are taken as "a reflection of different underlying
circuitry for spatial than verbal working memory"
(p.102), which supports the conceptualisation of working
memory "as a _set_ of subsystems rather than a single
system of information processing" (p.100).

Chapter 8 (Elissa L. Newport) presents two parallel
investigations of the asymmetry between input and the
acquisition of grammar. The first investigation finds
that 8-month-olds are able to perform complex
statistical analyses on the distributional
characteristics of an (artificial) corpus in order to
decode its grammar, whereas the second investigation
shows how a deaf child reshapes the input he receives
from deaf parents, who are both late learners of signed
language, by imposing on his own language grammatical
combinations of inflections never used by his parents.
These apparently contrasting sets of findings "offer an
appropriately rich picture of acquisition" (p.117),
highlighting the innate constraints on learning that
make the learner surpass inconsistencies in the input.

Chapter 9 (Susan Goldin-Meadow) takes an even stronger
stand on a nativist view of language acquisition,
opening with a discussion on the resilience of language,
regardless of medium, and on its structuring by the
human child even "when deprived of a language model
entirely" (p.123). Experimental observation then
compares the gestural production of hearing and deaf
children, showing that whereas deaf gesture takes on the
function and the structure of spoken language, hearing
gesture supports speech, in that it is detached from it
and therefore more imagistic. In this detachment,
particularly apparent in mismatches between spoken and
gestured messages during the performance of experimental
tasks, the author finds a signal of "readiness-to-learn"
(p. 131) that may help assess cognitive development.

Chapter 10 (Daniel Reisberg) takes up the issue of
detachment in what the author terms the "detachment
gain", in order to ascertain to what extent
subvocalisation (i.e., "thinking out loud", p.140)
assists in thinking. To the extent that subvocalisation
enables detachment from one's own mental products by
producing a stimulus to which we then are able to
respond, it increases the distance between author and
product. Cognitive distancing in turn allows the removal
of, say, one idea from "the context of understanding in
which it was created" (p.155), which opens the
possibility of new discoveries. The author discusses the
early 20th century view of thought as "covert speech",
often derided in current psychology, and presents a
series of experiments whose findings appear to confirm
that "[t]hought sometimes does require enactment"

Chapter 11 (Philip J. Kellman) sets out to review and
update the insights of Gestalt psychology towards a
detailed understanding of perceptual computations and
organisation, including in three spatial dimensions. A
reframing of the Gestaltist concept of "good
continuation" is proposed, especially in what concerns
the definition of "good" in the phrase. There follows a
discussion of several experiments showing that motion
relationships provide abundant information about object
structure and spatial layout, pointing to a
generalisation of spatial relatability to the
spatiotemporal domain. The chapter concludes on that the
notion of relatability, by providing the common thread
among the interface of pictorial, 3-D and spatiotemporal
object completion, may offer the key to a model of
object perception.

Chapter 12 (Katherine Hirsh-Pasek) expands on previous
research, co-authored by Lila Gleitman, seminal in
highlighting the importance of comprehension data for
the assessment and understanding of child language
acquisition. The point is that "[b]y the time children
are producing a structure, they have already acquired
that structure." (p.205). The author takes the position
that one set of cues, the patterning of grammatical
morphemes, is sufficient for distinguishing major
lexical classes, and therefore provides the foundation
in "the ability to discover the building blocks of
grammar" (p.192). Experimental findings establish that
children at the outset of the 2-word stage are indeed
able to detect bound morphology, though not all appear
to use it in all cases, and are therefore able to use it
to construct the grammar of their language.

Chapter 13 (Barbara Landau) finds a balance in that
"information from the environment" together with "the
learner's natural predispositions in interpreting
words", can serve as a "mental pointer" (p.212) in
determining the meaning of words. The author's earlier
investigation of language acquisition in blind children,
mooting the issue of whether the research was about
language or about space, provides the backdrop to the
present experimental study of how children encode
objects for the purpose of naming. The role of spatial
representation is claimed as prominent in this process,
as is that of linguistic representation: shape stands
out as the especially salient criterion in object
naming, particularly before age 4, whereas syntax plays
a steadily increasing role in the construction of word

Chapter 14 (W. Gerrod Parrott) pays tribute to Henry
Gleitman's interest in drama, through the "as-if"
(p.230) of experienced dramatic emotion. The chapter
reviews Elizabethan ideas about psychology, particularly
about emotion and its patterns of expression - and
suppression - as translated in Shakespeare's plays. The
study is prompted by the realisation that "modern
academic psychology appears excessively modular and
mechanical, paying insufficient attention to the social
and moral aspects of emotion" (p.242), in sharp contrast
to Elizabethan psychology, that "linked emotion to
ethics and virtue in ways not considered appropriate for
a modern science" (p.241) but which revealed the quality
said to be most characteristic of the Renaissance, "its
interest in the entire person" (p.242). It is this
interest that, in the author's view, makes emotion an
important topic in current psychology.

Chapter 15 (Letitia R. Naigles) argues that input has a
crucial role to play at a critical transition point in
children's acquisition of mental state verbs, in
particular 'know' and 'think/guess'. These verbs present
a particular acquisitional challenge, in that their
meanings are not "ostensibly available" (p. 247). Noting
that the turning point in their acquisition occurs at
around age 4, the author presents two sets of
experiments designed to ascertain whether regular
exposure to a popular child TV show or regular
preschool attendance, respectively, play role in the
understanding of the certainty dimension involved in the
use of 'know' vs. 'think/guess'. Television input is
found to lead the children towards a treatment of the
three verbs as equivalent along this dimension, whereas
preschool experience enhances a more distinctive
treatment of their meanings.

Chapter 16 (Cynthia Fisher) engages in the search for
potential presyntactic primitives that may play a role
in syntactic bootstrapping. The author's position is
that since observation of events alone cannot provide
the right kind of information to interpret a sentence,
"information directly relevant to the speaker's intent"
must be sought in sentence structure cues, which bear
"principled relations to the sentence's semantic
structure" (p.278). The semantic structures of verbs
are, in turn, assumed to be "essentially of the same
kind as the nonlinguistic conceptual structures by which
humans represent events" (p.281). Within this framework,
the author discusses experiments showing that the number
of noun phrase arguments of a verb appears meaningful to
preschoolers, which is interpreted as signalling a
presyntactic distinction between transitive and
intransitive sentences. The chapter concludes with the
observation that this primitive structure will
"influence interpretation as soon as the child can
identify some nouns and represent them as grouped within
a larger utterance" (p.288).

Chapter 17 (Thomas F. Shipley) returns to the intriguing
concept of identity, attempting to define "when an
organism will treat two things as the same -
psychologically identical" (p. 291). In particular, the
chapter deals with the perception of identity despite
spatial/temporal change, i.e., with illusory stability.
Perceived stability requires objects to change in
"lawful ways" across space and time (p. 293), which
argues against a concept of memory containing
representations of all objects. The author provides
recent experimental evidence on the human visual system,
supporting the view that lawful change, not memory
storage of stable objects, ensures the perception of
stability. Results also show that "the psychological
identity of objects over time is based on local motion
information" (p.307).

Chapter 18 (Michael Kelly) presents "examples of how
cognitive principles can illuminate certain aspects of
creative language use" (p.312). The study covers several
domains of linguistic creativity: the rhythmic structure
of verse, with an analysis of which word classes
(un)expectedly are made to occupy certain metrical
positions; spelling and stress, arguing for a direct
link between the two in English; the stress pattern of
noun-verb homographs in English, showing that
phonological structure draws a word towards a particular
grammatical class; the internal structure of word
blends, arguably predictable by psycholinguistic
principles that also affect word order; and rhyme
patterns in child verse, exploring the hypothesis that
rhyming words in oral poetry are stored in such a way
that "the successful retrieval of the first word in a
rhyme pair cues recall for the second word" (p.322).

Chapter 19 (John C. Trueswell) investigates the validity
of lexicalist hypotheses concerning sentence processing.
Central to the lexicalist theory is the claim that word
recognition involves the activation of syntactic
information about lexical items. The chapter presents an
experimental layout assessing the processing of verbs,
using a new type of lexical priming technique that
provides "the most compelling evidence to date that word
recognition itself includes the parallel activation of
possible argument structures" (p.336). Insight into the
integration of these different types of information
suggests that linguistic information is "made available
in a probabilistic fashion and can be constrained by
correlated information from other dimensions." (p.340).

The book does justice to its title, and subtitle, in
that it gives a panoramic, state-of-the-art account of
research in perception, cognition and language,
particularly child language acquisition, from within the
pedagogic and academic standards set by Henry and Lila
Their imprint and their school of thought are the ones
described and put into experimental practice in the
book, which understandably leaves alternative analyses
and other current developments in the areas concerned
largely unmentioned. For example, prosody as a
"prerequisite to syntax acquisition", which is currently
the object of intense research in child language
acquisition, is referred once in the whole book, in the
literature review given in chapter 16 (p.282).

One regrettable omission, in a volume honouring the
heritage of two scholars, is that of a full bibliography
of their academic production. Incidentally, there appear
to have occurred a number of glitches in the editing
process, principally concerning references and the
criteria used in the index, apart from a few misprints
that do not hinder comprehension. The Introduction,
which extensively quotes work produced with, or because
of, the Gleitmans, has no references section. Since
references are given for each chapter only, one is left
with scarce means of looking these up. Other problematic
references include "Kelly, in preparation" (p.318),
which is not included in the references to chapter 18;
Singleton & Newport, variously referred as "in
preparation" (p.116) and "under review" (p.117) in
chapter 8; and, also in chapter 8, "Hudson & Newport, in
progress" (p. 116), is not given in the references. In
the index, P. Ekman and G. Bower, both quoted once in
chapter 14 (pp.236 and 239, respectively) receive
different treatment, in that only the latter is
included, whereas P. Jusczyk, quoted on pages 7 and 282
appears cross-referenced to the former page only.

One thread pervading the three areas discussed in the
book, particularly in the chapters in Part III, concerns
the issues of categorisation and identity, manifested in
linguistic or brain patterning. Stable perceptual,
cognitive and linguistic structures are what enables us
to make sense of the world around us, including our
fellow human beings and ourselves, and what allows us to
go beyond perceived stability. In this sense, the book
transcends the obvious readership of scholars and
students concerned with these matters for strict
academic purposes, even though a few of the chapters may
prove a hard bite for the non-initiated. In the words of
W.G. Parrott (chapter 14), "The basic concepts of
psychology are all folk concepts: memory, attention,
perception, emotion, and so on." (p.240). The same is
true of the basic concepts of cognitive science and of
linguistics. The major appeal of this book is therefore
that of drawing together in one volume the thrill
associated with being offered interpretations of the why
and the how of apparently trivial actions like speaking,
thinking or identifying a cat as a cat.
Equally riveting is to muse on the breadth and depth of
research, spawned by the stamina, passion and competence
of two outstanding academics and teachers, of which the
collected essays are adequately representative.
Virtually all the research programmes discussed in the
book were launched at the Gleitman's research seminar, a
weekly happening that is profusely and often hilariously
documented in Part II of the book. At this seminar,
researchers, teachers and students alike are vividly
described sharing the joys of discovery, forgetting the
time of night in the heat of arguments, getting stuck in
dead ends, joking, teaching, arguing, learning and being
voraciously hungry (mostly for cheese, as it turns out).
These are surely the prime ingredients of creative
intellectual achievement, as well as of honed ability to
impart its progress and setbacks to others, without
which achievement is void. As J. Sabini puts it in his
tribute to Lila Gleitman (chapter 4, p.56), the point is
"how not to have two careers, an intellectual career and
a teaching career."

[About the reviewer: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira teaches
phonetics, phonology, morphology and general linguistics
at the National University of Singapore. Her research
interests include prosody, bilingual child language
acquisition and Portuguese linguistics. ]
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