LINGUIST List 15.2456

Sat Sep 4 2004

Review: Language Acquisition: White (2003)

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  1. Lisa DeWaard Dykstra, Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar

Message 1: Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar

Date: Fri, 3 Sep 2004 23:39:36 -0400 (EDT)
From: Lisa DeWaard Dykstra <>
Subject: Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar

AUTHOR: White, Lydia 
TITLE: Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar
SERIES: Textbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2003 
Announced at

Lisa DeWaard Dykstra, University of Iowa

This textbook is designed to provide the advanced undergraduate
student and graduate students in linguistics with a thorough
understanding of the role of Universal Grammar (UG) in Second Language
Acquisition (SLA). First, the ''logical problem of second language
acquisition'' is examined. Next, White turns to the initial state of
the learner's grammar, and then focuses on the grammar beyond that
initial state. Triggering, morphological variability, argument
structure, and the steady state are also examined in the light of UG.

The volume provides both new research insights into UG and SLA while
also containing elements of a textbook. At the end of each chapter
there are questions for reflection, which can be utilized for self-
study or in the classroom. At the end of the book there is a helpful

Beginning with first language acquisition (L1A), White details the
role of UG in the development of the native tongue. Research on the
Overt Pronoun Constraint is used to flesh out an understanding of the
logical problem of second language acquisition. Parameters are briefly
explained, and the traditional approaches to UG access are evaluated:
direct access, indirect access, and no access. Finally, the
distinction between competence and performance is visited, as well as
the implications that it has on methodology.

The purpose of chapter two is to examine relevant studies to determine
whether or not interlanguage grammars (ILG) are constrained by UG.
Attempts on the part of researchers to propose that there are 'wild
grammars' which preclude the availability of UG to the learner are
shown to be faulty; alternate analyses are possible which argue
strongly for UG-constrained ILGs. White concludes that ''[r]esults
from several experiments suggest that learners of a variety of L2s
demonstrate unconscious knowledge of subtle distinctions that are
unlikely to have come from the L2 input (including instruction) or
from the L1, consistent with the claim that principles of UG constrain
interlanguage grammars'' (p. 56).

The 'initial state' is something that has only recently begun to be
investigated in-depth. There are two primary views on what can
constitute the initial state: the grammar of the L1 and UG. Advocates
of the first view, or Schwartz and Sprouse's ''Full Transfer Full
Access Hypothesis'' claim that the initial state is the actual L1
steady state grammar, and that changes occur when the learner's L1
analysis of a string fails and grammar change is triggered. The idea
that the L1 influences the developing ILG also provides an explanation
for why many L2 learners do not achieve a near-native steady state
(discussed further in chapter eight). The second view, that UG with a
weak or neutral set of parameters settings constitutes the initial
state, claims that there is no L1 role influence. Theorists that
advocate for this position are unclear as to whether the whole grammar
is involved, or simply a part.

In moving beyond the initial state, White examines how the ILG
develops over time, including what the role of parameters is in
grammar change. The implications of the initial state theories are
discussed to determine what changes in representation each allows. In
addition, the question of how parameters function in grammar
development is addressed, specifically whether they are at work at
all, and if so, how this takes place.

Much of the research into UG over the past several decades has focused
on the issue of representations in interlanguage. White details the
need for a theory of development/change often referred to in the
literature as triggering. The role of parsing is discussed, as well as
what triggering is and what form it can take (e.g., triggering in the
form of morphological cues). A case is made for 'indirect negative
evidence,' in which ''the learner somehow determines that certain
structures or cues are absent or non-occurring'' (p. 165). While White
acknowledges that the learner must have some idea of what to look for,
she goes on to say that it may be possible for the grammar to search
for cues if a particular parameter setting is not found, that could
provide motivation for the changing of a parameter setting.

In chapter six, White studies the morphology/syntax interface to
determine to what if any interdependence there may be between the two
systems in the light of interlanguage restructuring. Theories that
propose a syntax-before-morphology or a morphology-before-syntax
orientation are discussed. Problems may arise when learners are unable
to map from the abstract to the surface systems.

In discussing argument structure, White addresses properties of the L2
lexicon in detail, specifically semantic constraints and
crosslinguistic differences that the learner may encounter (among
others). Lexical entries are complex, encoding enormous amounts of
information, including which semantic primitive set a particular word
may belong to, as well as what kind of argument structure it requires.
For the learner, the move to map a lexical entry to the syntax is
complex. White shows how UG is involved, and discusses evidence that
is contrary to the No Parameter Resetting theory outlined in chapter
four. Methodological issues related to the studies presented are also

Ultimate attainment, or the steady state learners achieve, is the
subject of the last chapter. Central to discussions of UG is the
question of why some learners attain a more native-like steady state
than others, if UG is available to them. Competence and performance
factors are revisited, as well as the methodological considerations
making investigations in this area difficult.

This volume is an excellent review of the most central questions
related to UG, in particular: the logical problem of language
acquisition, access to UG, ILG restructuring, and ultimate attainment.
Written in clear and interesting prose, White artfully provides
balanced evidence for each of the central issues, and succinctly
exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the recent literature. In
addition to providing thorough descriptions of the studies examined,
important works are offset in gray boxes that contain (1) the
languages involved in the study, (2) the task participants completed,
(3) sample stimuli, and (4) statistical results. These snapshot views
of significant studies are a handy reference guide for students. This
book achieves its goal of providing the reader with a better
understanding of how UG is active in the many facets of SLA.


Lisa DeWaard Dykstra is a Doctoral Candidate in Second Language
Acquisition at the University of Iowa. Her primary research area is
interlanguage pragmatics. She is currently working on a project on the
acquisition of the formal and informal 'you' distinction by native
English-speaking learners of Russian and Spanish.
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