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LINGUIST List 21.4899

Sun Dec 05 2010

Review: Language Acquisition: Saxton (2010)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

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        1.     Rita Finkbeiner , Child Language: Acquisition and Development

Message 1: Child Language: Acquisition and Development
Date: 05-Dec-2010
From: Rita Finkbeiner <finkbeinuni-mainz.de>
Subject: Child Language: Acquisition and Development
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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/21/21-1781.html
AUTHOR: Saxton, Matthew
TITLE: Child Language
SUBTITLE: Acquisition and Development
PUBLISHER: Sage Publications
YEAR: 2010

Rita Finkbeiner, Department of German, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz


The purpose of this textbook is to provide an introduction to the field of child
language, including its central topics, history and latest research. The
intended audience being ''students of psychology with an interest in child
language'' (p. xvi), the author assumes no background knowledge of linguistic
theory and terminology, and all specialist terms are either introduced in the
main text, elaborated on in text boxes, or explained in a glossary at the end of
the book. A central issue throughout the book is the nature-nurture debate, also
referred to in the subtitle of the book, ''acquisition and development''. The
terms reflect two different ''cultures'' in child language research: On the one
hand, research in the tradition of Chomsky, according to whom language is
something innate (''acquisition''), and on the other hand, research focusing on
the learnability of language (''development''), with the usage-based approach
being the most prominent account.

The book is divided into ten chapters, followed by two appendices, a glossary of
linguistic terms, answers to exercises, references, and a separate author and
subject index. Every chapter starts with an overview, outlining what the student
is expected to know after reading, proceeds with the main text, providing the
arguments and evidence advanced in the field, and concludes with a summary (''in
a nutshell''), further reading and links to websites. Additional pedagogic
features are boxes, exercises, and discussion points.

Chapter 1, ''Prelude: Landmarks in the Landscape of Child Language'', presents
major landmarks in language development at the levels of phonology, vocabulary,
morphology and syntax, and introduces the nature-nurture problem. The child's
linguistic abilities are contextualized by giving an overview of the child's
achievements in other developmental domains, and the remainder of the book is

Chapter 2, ''Can Animals Acquire Human Language? Shakespeare's Typewriter'', deals
with the question of whether language is a uniquely human trait. In raising this
question, the chapter seeks to clarify ''what, precisely, is unique, and possibly
biologically determined, about the human capacity to acquire language'' (p. 27).
The author discusses issues such as the difference between language, talk and
communication; forms and limitations of animal language; and broad vs. narrow
definitions of the language faculty.

Chapter 3, ''The Critical Period Hypothesis: Now or Never?'', considers the
question whether the capacity to acquire language is confined to a specific
period of time early on in development, a question that has been at the center
of language acquisition research over many years. The chapter evaluates the key
features assumed to define the critical period, drawing on early experimental
research. The methodological problems of investigating the critical period
hypothesis give rise to a critical discussion of experimental designs in child
language research. The chapter also considers age effects in second language

Chapter 4, ''Input and Interaction: Tutorials for Toddlers'', deals with the role
of input and interaction in language acquisition, thus shifting to the ''nurture''
side of the debate. With respect to input, the issue of child directed speech
(CDS) and its modifications at the levels of phonology, vocabulary, morphology
and syntax are discussed. With respect to interaction, the role of imitation for
language acquisition, especially the role of adult recast, are examined.

Chapter 5, ''Language in the First Year: Breaking the Sound Barrier'', looks at
the question ''how the child gets started on the task of language acquisition''
(p. 109). The focus is on phonology and speech perception and the question how
the child manages to discriminate phonemes and words in the ''river of speech''
(p. 109). Issues discussed are specialization towards the native language, word
segmentation and early grammar.

Chapter 6, ''The Developing Lexicon: What's in a Name?'', turns from phonological
to lexical development and word learning. The chapter discusses possible causes
for overextension, investigates different explanations for the so-called
''vocabulary spurt'', and considers the role of conceptual biases as solutions to
Quine's ''gavagai'' problem: how the child is able to figure out what a word
refers to, given the infinite possibilities.

Chapter 7, ''The Acquisition of Morphology: Linguistic Lego'', moves to the
acquisition of morphology, looking at central issues in the fields of
inflectional morphology and word formation. In the field of inflectional
morphology, the focus is on research on regular and irregular past tense
acquisition and its two rival approaches -- the single-route and the dual-route
approach. In the field of word formation, the author focuses on the acquisition
of compounding, referring to the latest research in the area. A third issue in
this chapter is development in the school years, when children can acquire a
more explicit awareness of morphology.

Chapter 8, ''Linguistic Nativism: To the Grammar Born'', deals with the
acquisition of syntax from a nativist perspective. The chapter introduces the
concept of Universal Grammar (UG) and provides the reader with the main
arguments in favor of the idea that UG is innate, focusing on ''poverty of
stimulus'' as one of its most prominent, but also most controversial arguments.
The author presents a balanced view of nativism, however critically pointing out
problematic aspects like the poor support of the innateness hypothesis by
empirical evidence.

Chapter 9, ''The Usage-based Approach: Making it Up as You Go Along'', takes the
opposite perspective, presenting the usage-based view on syntactic acquisition.
The chapter outlines the main assumptions of this approach, such as the
importance of social communication for language development, the gradual
development of adult-like language, or the assumption that it is entire
utterances rather than words that constitute the child's earliest speech output.
The chapter provides a balanced view of the usage-based approach, however
critically pointing out problems in explaining (constraints on) child productivity.

Chapter 10, ''You Say Nature, I Say Nurture: Better Call the Calling Off Off'',
reviews the ideas presented in the preceding chapters, discusses them within the
framework of the nature-nurture debate, and seeks to develop an integrated view
of both concepts. The author shows in which ways ''nature'' might interact with
''nurture'' and vice versa. As a practical exercise, the reader is asked to
compose her own timeline of child language, by extracting key features from
every chapter. The chapter ends with an outline of the limitations and
possibilities of methodology in child language research.


The author fully succeeds in his aim to provide an introduction to child
language for students without previous knowledge in the field of linguistics.
The book is very well-written and keeps an easy tone even when matters get more
complicated. It is carefully structured along the lines of the nature-nurture
debate and the linguistic domains of phonology, lexicon, morphology, and syntax.
But not only beginners, also advanced students in the fields of linguistics,
psychology, or education will enjoy this book, because its organization makes it
possible to individually choose topics of interest, or alternatively skip topics
that are already known. The book may also be used by graduate students as a
valuable resource, providing references to the latest research, comprehensive
author and subject indexes, and useful websites. For use in the classroom, the
discussion points to some of the topics are of particular interest. It would
have been nice, though, to have more of them. Exercises in every chapter, with
an answer list in the appendix, can be used for self-study. Yet the most
impressive thing about this book, in my opinion, is the way the author succeeds
in giving a thorough introduction to the different topics and, at the same time,
keeping a critical, argumentative style throughout the book, encouraging the
reader to adopt a critical stance herself. As two minor disadvantages, it can be
mentioned, first, that the glossary sometimes seems to be too limited by the
requirement not to assume previous knowledge. For example, the term ''complement''
is defined as ''an expression that combines with a head word to form a syntactic
phrase'' (exemplified, in the subsequent text, by the noun phrase ''the man''), the
term ''head'' being typed in bold style (p. 262). Yet under the glossary entry
''head'', the reader only finds the hint ''see complement'' (p. 263). Second, it is
regrettable that the issue of pragmatic acquisition is not included in the book.
In recent years, there is a growing interest in this field, with a large amount
of experimental studies being carried out. This disadvantage is, on the other
hand, quite understandable, given the natural limits of the textbook format.


Rita Finkbeiner, PhD, is research assistant at the German department at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. She is currently working on a project on first language acquisition of compounding. Her main research interests are in the areas of semantics and pragmatics, language acquisition, phraseology and multilingualism. She teaches introductory courses in German linguistics.

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