LINGUIST List 15.725

Sun Feb 29 2004

Review: Language Acquisition: Gillen (2003)

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  1. Dr. Despina Papadopoulou, The Language of Children

Message 1: The Language of Children

Date: Sun, 29 Feb 2004 01:36:47 -0500 (EST)
From: Dr. Despina Papadopoulou <>
Subject: The Language of Children

AUTHOR: Gillen, Julia
TITLE: The Language of Children
SERIES: Intertext
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2003

Announced at

Despina Papadopoulou, Cyprus College

Julia Gillen's book ''The Language of Children'' is part of the Inter-
text series, whose aim is to provide students with accessible
textbooks on text analysis, and is mainly addressed to students who
have an interest on language and communication. Gillen's main purpose
is to describe the written as well as the spoken language children use
to communicate and express themselves. In doing so she adopts a
sociocultural perspective and tries to explain the children's
productions in terms of their interaction with the socio-cultural

The contents of the book are divided into six units. The author also
provides ideas about projects that the students could carry on in the
future, suggestions for further reading and an index of the main terms
used in the book along with their definitions. The first unit sketches
the aim of the book, which is to familiarize the students with the
language used by children. Gillen specifies that she will focus on the
communicative practices and the diversity of children's language.
Moreover, the author makes it clear that she will depart from the
nativist view on first language acquisition, because she considers it
simplistic in that it ignores the socio-cultural effects on the
children's language. The author also provides a number of speech
samples from either monolingual or bilingual children in naturalistic
contexts in order to show that children are able to detect language
parts that contribute to the communication, like openings and endings.

Unit two is concerned with two topics: the description of some
properties of the written language produced by children and, the
multimodality in children's attempts to communicate. With respect to
the first topic, Gillen observes that the children's writing abilities
evolve gradually and are affected by socio-cultural perspectives. In
addition, even very young children seem to be aware of some
conventions about the presentation of written texts, like the
positioning of the title at the beginning of the text. Moreover, the
children's written texts show awareness of the existence of various
genres and some kind of understanding of the techniques used in those
genres, for example in narratives. With respect to the issue of
multimodality, Gillen shows how children use images together with
words in order to make their messages better understood.

In the third unit, Gillen explores the importance of play for child
speech. The author provides many spontaneous speech samples along with
descriptions of the contextual circumstances, in which the speech
samples were produced, in order to show the effect of both the play
and the communicative event on child speech. By analysing all those
speech samples, which involve sociodramatic play among children,
Gillen draws the conclusion that very early in life children display
features of communicative competence, like awareness of openings,
closings and turn-takings in conversations.

The fourth unit explores certain characteristics of the early words
children produce and the way kids learn new words. With respect to the
way early words are pronounced, Gillen points out that pronunciation
is simplified and that children tend to use syllabic
reduplications. In addition, children use words to express particular
kinds of interactions and they often use one word in order to denote
the meaning of a whole phrase or even sentence (holophrastic
utterance). Underextension - that children might not be able to
extend the use of a particular word to a similar set of objects - and
overextension - that they might erroneously assume that a word applies
to all objects of the same category - also illustrate two properties
of the child early vocabulary. Gillen notices two factors that help
word learning: cultural relatedness and repetition. The social sense
of memory, that is the associations formed between certain words and
their cultural and social meanings, also plays an important role in
word learning. Furthermore, social language routines, like greetings,
or rhymes help children acquire new words. In contrast, Gillen
emphasizes that the ''object-point-label'' has been overestimated and
it is not sufficient to account for the way children acquire

In unit five, Gillen describes the early communication development in
infants before language emerges. Gillen provides the stages the
children go through (i. e. cooing, vocal play, babbling) before they
start producing word combinations. The author points out that infants
are able to recognize phonemes of their language and that they have an
innate predisposition towards turn-taking. She also stresses the fact
that early interactions with children are important and encourage
children to produce speech.

In the sixth unit, the author presents three theories for first
language acquisition, namely the sociocultural, cognitivist and
nativist theories. The sociocultural approach to language development
assumes that children are genetically predisposed to communicate with
others, that sociocultural factors are important in language
acquisition and that children are active learners, in the sense that
''they organize their own learning'' (Gillen, 2003: 80). Gillen also
refers to Vygotsky's work on child language, which gives emphasis on
the important role of culture in language acquisition and the way
''children learn through observing, interpreting and participating in
social practices'' (Gillen, 2003: 85). In addition, Vygotsky paid
attention to children's private speech and considered it as being an
instrument of solving problems.

According to Vygotsky, this ''egocentric'' speech of children is
social from the very beginning, in that it is influenced by the
surrounding conditions and it is often addressed to an audience, and
later on in life leads to inner speech. Cognitivists also recognize
that an essential part in language learning is what they call
''discovery learning'' and, following Jean Piaget, their aim is to
explore the relationships between cognitive and language
development. On the other hand, the nativist view on language
acquisition supports that the input children are exposed to is not
always grammatical or complete and, therefore, children must be
equipped with a device that helps them acquire language. Based on
Chomsky's idea about the existence of universal properties across
different languages, researchers working in this framework assume that
in their attempt to acquire their native languages children are aided
by a language acquisition device, which incorporates the principles
and the parameters of human languages. The environment they are
exposed to triggers the operation of the language acquisition device
and the adjustment of the Universal Grammar to the grammatical
properties of their native language.

''The Language of Children'' is a reader-friendly and accessible book,
which provides the reader with an introduction to the language used by
children. One of the advantages of this textbook is that it contains
many spontaneous samples of child language, either written or oral,
which helps the reader to actually see how child language looks like
and make his/her own observations. In addition, the samples are
presented in a clear way, in that the symbols used in the
transcriptions are adequately explained and in that the context, in
which the utterances were produced, is always provided, which helps
the reader to form a clearer picture of the properties of the child
language. Furthermore, another merit of this textbook is that each
unit consists of several activities, which make the students not only
think about certain issues relevant to child language development but
also encourage them to analyze the samples provided and arrive at
their own conclusions.

I would like to raise, however, two points: one is concerned with the
way children acquire words and the second one is related to the
theories for first language acquisition. In unit 4, in which Gillen
discusses the properties of early words children use and the ways
children learn new words, she does not mention certain biases that
help children infer the word meaning, like the taxonomic bias or the
mutual exclusivity bias (Guasti, 2002: 74-80). In addition, I think
the author could have stressed the fact that word learning might be
different from other aspects of language development, like phonology,
morphology and syntax (see for example Markson & Bloom, 2001). With
respect to the theories about child language development, they are
presented in an accessible way. However, I think these theories should
have been mentioned at the beginning of the book and at the last unit
the author could refer back to them and discuss them in the light of
the data she presented throughout the book.

Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that Gillen makes it clear from
the very beginning of the book that she will focus on the
sociocultural aspects of child communication and she keeps this
promise, as she refers to Vygotsky's theory and to social effects on
language acquisition in different parts of the book when analyzing the
data. However, on my point of view she makes an injustice to the
nativist view, in that she claims that it is a ''deficit model''
(Gillen, 2003: 3), since it is emphasized on ''what children can't
do'' (Gillen, 2003: 3). And elsewhere she maintains that according to
the nativist view first language acquisition departs ''from nowhere to
the ideal'' (Gillen, 2003: 7). I think that these two points are not
accurate descriptions of the nativist theory about child language
acquisition. My understanding of this theory is that, on the contrary,
it emphasizes on what children can do and that they do not start from
nowhere but rather from the principles and parameters provided by
Universal Grammar (see also Guasti, 2002: 17-21). Hence, Gillen could
have only focused on the different perspectives the socio-cultural and
the nativist theories have towards child language acquisition: the
nativist model is concerned with the grammatical development per se,
whereas the socio- cultural view seeks to investigate the complexity
and diversity of child communication and its interaction with
socio-cultural factors.

In general, this is a good introductory book to child language with
emphasis on socio-cultural approaches and it gives the reader the
opportunity to access real data and to reflect about the way children


Guasti, Maria Teresa (2002) Language Acquisition. The growth of
Grammar. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Markson, Lori & Bloom, Paul (2001) Evidence Against a Dedicated System
for Word Learning in Children, ed. by Michael Tomasello and Elizabeth
Bates, pp. 129-133. Language Development. Blackwell Publishing.


I did my BA on Linguistics and my MA on Teaching Greek as a Foreign
Language at the University of Athens. I also did an MA on Language
Acquisitionat the University of essex. I did my Ph. D. on Sentence
Processing at the University of Essex. At the moment I am an Assistant
professor of Linguistics at Cyprus College, Nicosia, Cyprus. My
research interests lie in the area of Psycholinguistics. More
specifically, I have done some work on the way native speakers and
second language learners process sentences. I want to further explore
the differences between L1 and L2 sentence processing and to
investigate whether native speakers rely more on grammatical cues to
process sentences than L2 learners.
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