LINGUIST List 15.1698

Wed Jun 2 2004

Review: Language Acquisition: Guasti (2004)

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  1. Julie Bruch, Language Acquisition: The Growth of Grammar

Message 1: Language Acquisition: The Growth of Grammar

Date: Wed, 2 Jun 2004 00:28:31 -0400 (EDT)
From: Julie Bruch <juliebruchhotmail.com>
Subject: Language Acquisition: The Growth of Grammar

AUTHOR: Guasti, Maria Teresa
TITLE: Language Acquisition (paperback ed.)
SUBTITLE: The Growth of Grammar
SERIES: Bradford Books
PUBLISHER: MIT Press
YEAR: 2004
ISBN: 0262572206
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-988.html


Julie Bruch, Mesa State College

OVERVIEW

The author of ''Language Acquisition'' indicates that this text is
intended for use by upper-division undergraduate students or graduate
students of child language acquisition, and as a reference for
researchers who wish to update their knowledge of current research in
the field. She does not specify the range of fields of studies for
which this text is appropriate, but I believe that because of its
rather technical nature, it is more fitting for students and
researchers of linguistics and linguistics sub-fields than for those
in fields such as human growth and development. The author suggests
that general knowledge of basic linguistics is sufficient background
for understanding the data and theories discussed. This may be true to
a degree. The author attempts to fill in gaps by summarizing relevant
background concepts before the main discussion in each chapter, and
she provides a helpful list of abbreviations and a glossary at the end
of the book. The style in which this text is written is sophisticated
and intellectually challenging enough for readers familiar with the
field, yet at the same time, the author maintains clarity by careful
reiteration of important ideas, such that readers who are less
experienced in linguistics can follow her arguments. I found, however,
that in order for readers to fully understand and benefit from the
material, more extensive linguistics coursework prior to using the
book would be helpful (particularly in syntactic theory).

Guasti has integrated several pedagogical helps into her book, which I
believe add immensely to its usefulness as a text and to its overall
interest. In addition to the chapter initial outlines, she has
included ''intermediate summaries,'' and final summaries in each
chapter to assist readers in checking their comprehension of her main
points throughout the reading. The chapter final summaries of
linguistic milestones and lists of key words are also useful
quick-references. The suggestions for further reading and study
questions after each chapter are carefully organized and will help
students not only to fully understand the chapter but also to learn to
design and carry out their own research.

The book is organized into eleven chapters that cover aspects of
language acquisition from birth through the age of about five or
six. As the title of Chapter 1 (''Basic Concepts'') indicates, this
chapter lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. It provides
theoretical foundations for research in child language acquisition,
including: an outline of hypotheses about language acquisition which
have led up to current thought and research, definitions of key
concepts such as the notions of ''grammar'' and ''constraints,'' and
mention of the ''logical problem of language acquisition,'' which
introduces the questions that the book will try to answer. The chapter
ends by characterizing language as an innate behavior and discussing
the relevance of the critical period.

Chapter 2 ''First Steps into Language'' discusses the development of
phonological knowledge in language, addressing both discrimination and
production. Rather than simply outlining the progression of production
of language sounds as the stages of cooing, babbling, etc., as is done
is many texts, Guasti thoroughly documents first how babies begin to
discriminate the sounds of their language and shows how this type of
data is gathered. She refers back to the ideas presented in Chapter 1
regarding innateness, universal grammar (UG) and mental
representations. She makes reference to the babbling of deaf infants
as a means of supporting her generalizations about phoneme
acquisition.

Chapter 3 ''Acquisition of the Lexicon'' transitions smoothly from the
discussion of acquisition of sounds to acquisition of words by
examining the concept of ''phonological bootstrapping,'' and the
chapter ends with the suggestion that children can subsequently use
lexicon to bootstrap into syntax, which is discussed in the following
chapters. As continued throughout the rest of the book, the author
establishes in this chapter a model of presenting interesting
questions at the beginning of the chapter, taking logically patterned
steps to investigate various possible answers, and finally
establishing a careful rationale for choosing the most attractive and
most logical answer(s). This includes careful description of research
design, synthesis and rigorous analysis of data, evaluation of
competing hypotheses, and the pointing out of interesting directions
for further research. For example, at the beginning and in the middle
of this chapter, Guasti asks and answers questions such as:
 ''But how have [children] managed to discover words?''
 ''How can the child establish the meaning of a given word?''
 ''How do toddlers know that labels identify objects or describe
 actions, that is, that words have reference and contribute to the
 truthfulness of sentences?''
She introduces the learnability problem here and reiterates the
plausibility of a UG-based explanation even at the level of lexicon.
Her conclusions are that children make use of innate conceptual
schemata, cues from the extralinguistic context (''word to world
mapping''), and in a spiraling pattern, use syntax to gain further
lexicon (''sentence-to-world mapping'').

Chapters 4 through 10 all address the acquisition of syntax and
morphosyntax. These chapter titles read something similar to a syntax
text and cover topics such as: clauses, agreement relations, root
infinitives, null subjects, Wh-movement in question formation and
relative clauses, passive constructions, principles of binding theory
and anaphora, quantification of NPs and universal quantification, and
control theory regarding early learners representations of the
understood subjects/objects of non-finite verbs (PRO) empty category.

The data presented in these chapters come from a variety of languages,
mainly English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. There are
also examples to a lesser degree from Chinese, Salish, Japanese,
Danish, Catalan, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Polish, Serbo-Croatian,
Russian and others. This variety of data helps to support claims based
on the concept of UG as well as distinguish differences found in
acquisition patterns that are based on language-specific forms.

An example of the formality with which Guasti treats acquisition of
syntax in her text is found in her explanation of missing inflections
and auxiliaries in early speech. Many texts simply characterize this
as ''telegraphic speech'' and explain the stage using the notions of
lexical categories such as content or function words. Guasti links
telegraphic speech with a rationale from phrase structure
representations, explaining that early speech has functional
projections and movement rules within the X-bar structural system that
are distinct from those of the adult speaker. Again, she avoids the
learnability problem inherent in lexical explanations and establishes
through her analyses an elegant continuity between child and adult
mental grammars.

In Chapter 5 ''Null Subjects in Early Languages,'' the author provides
a tripartite characterization of parameters setting in the world's
languages related to null subjects and relates these to the parameter
setting of early language users. In her arguments explaining early
null subjects, she discusses not only these types of syntactic
constraints relevant to competence in language, but also possible
phonological constraints relevant to performance.

Chapter 6 ''Acquisition of Wh-Movement'' engages in explaining why
Wh-Movement in negative questions lags in English but not in other
languages. Some interesting language specific differences in
acquisition appear to be linked to specific morphosyntactic properties
of English verbs. Guasti goes on to give careful and elegant rationale
for positing a ''null auxiliary'' parallel to the null subject. She
manages to avoid the problems inherent in hypothesizing a feature of
early syntax which does not exist in adult grammar and the
discontinuity that this would imply. This chapter outlines research
related to the comprehension of long distance Wh-Movment as well as
production and points out some interesting hierarchical implication
relationships in development. A variety of explanations for children's
errors is examined, including analysis of pragmatic variables that may
have influenced research outcomes. And finally, the chapter
reiterates the importance of avoiding discontinuities between child
and adult grammars because of the learnability problems which then
require resolution.

Chapter 7 ''Acquisition of NP-Movement'' refutes the traditional
maturational accounts for difficulties encountered in acquiring
passives and indicates that early learners likely have much more
competence than they have been given credit for due to faults in
previous research design or formulation of explanations of data.
Guasti provides evidence, using unaccusative verbs, that children can
access hierarchical relationships at an early age, rather than being
dependent on flat linear relationships between sentence components as
was previously thought.

Through the discussion in Chapter 8 ''Acquisition of the Binding
Principles,'' Guasti emphasizes the importance of language acquisition
studies in supporting greater linguistic theory. She shows here that
early learners do have access to the syntactic Binding Principles by
the age of 3 or 4, enabling them to interpret anaphoric relationships
of sentence elements and produce pronouns and pronoun referents. As in
Chapter 6, both comprehension and production studies are presented. At
one point in the chapter, Guasti mentions that more work is indicated
in developmental pragmatics in order to complete the explanations of
child pronoun usage errors.

Chapter 9 ''Aspects of the Acquisition of Quantification'' contains
important critiques of research design used to explain the early
learners' representations of quantification. The author emphasizes the
importance of the plausibility of the task in designing tests for
children and suggests that pragmatic infelicities may be responsible
for conflicting results. Later, she draws interesting parallels
between work in acquisition of quantification in language and
experiments in the development of numerical competence.

Chapter 10 ''Acquisition of Control'' discusses children's early
interpretations of the subjects and objects of non-finite verbs in
complement, adjunct and embedded elements of the sentence. Research
has suggested that children can distinguish between lexical pronouns
and PRO. However, there is a stage at which production exceeds
comprehension (around age 3), which is mentioned as an interesting
discrepancy.

The final chapter ''Dissociation between Language and Other Cognitive
Abilities'' is an excellent ending to the book. The chapter begins
with the question, ''Is language dependent from other cognitive
capacities?'' It includes comparisons and data from two types of
children from varying linguistic backgrounds: 1) those who have
specific language impairment (SLI) in which normal cognitive capacity
is present but language capacity is impaired, and 2) those who have
Williams syndrome in which cognitive capacity is impaired but language
capacity is not. The chapter shows that language systems function and
are acquired (at least to a great degree) independently from other
cognitive systems.

CRITICAL EVALUATION

Guasti's text can be recommended on a number of levels, namely, the
clarity of its organization and reasoning, the comprehensiveness of
its reporting of previous and current research from a variety of
languages, and its modeling of critical thinking skills involved in
analyzing language, designing research, and formulating and evaluating
hypotheses. Both pedagogically and as a reference tool, this book
makes significant contributions to the field. Guasti poses interesting
questions throughout her book and answers them with convincing and
compelling arguments.

Although the book has overall very good readability, I found certain
discussions, especially the one on sources of root infinitives in
Chapter 4 (p. 133 to 144) and the one of the nature of the empty
category (p. 167-170) to be somewhat too dense (too technical?) for my
comfort level. (Perhaps this could stand as a caveat for professors
using the book with their students?) Guasti carefully and usefully
defines certain terms, such as ''bootstrapping,'' but mistakenly
assumes readers know or can easily access definitions for other terms
(such as ''unaccusative'' and ''unergative''), which are important for
full understanding of her points. Her glossary is helpful, but it
would be more helpful were it better balanced. Of forty-six terms
defined in the glossary, 22 refer to phonology, which only takes up
one chapter in the book, and only 24 refer to syntax, which is
discussed at a quite theoretical level in seven chapters, the majority
of the book.

In this same regard, I was left wishing that more in-depth treatment
had been given to both phonology and lexicon, and that additional
chapters had been added discussing semantics and pragmatics and the
interfaces in early language. It may be that there is simply not yet
as much research available in these areas, but I would certainly hope
to see additions as data becomes available. Also, as more data is
forthcoming from other non-Indo-European languages, it should be more
fully integrated in order to enrich or complete the analyses. For
example, in the discussion of acquisition of verbs through syntactic
cuing, there was a bias toward the perspective of Indo-European
data. Adding data from acquisition of verbs in discourse-oriented
languages such as Japanese or from languages such as Hopi whose verbs
have distinct types of arguments would broaden our understanding.

This is a stimulating and theoretically rich text, which provides
data-driven analyses and reaches logical conclusions about child
language acquisition. It is faithful to the tenets of UG and the
innateness hypothesis while giving consideration to alternative
explanations.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Julie Bruch teaches "Linguistic Diversity and Awareness" and "History
of the English Language" at Mesa State College. She is interested in
theories of first and second language acquisition and
cross-cultural/cross-linguistic comparisons, especially in the area of
politeness.
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