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LINGUIST List 24.1931

Sun May 05 2013

Review: Lang. Acquisition; Ling. Theories; Psycholinguistics: Piattelli-Palmarini & Berwick (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 26-Mar-2013
From: Melissa Whatley <melwhatlindiana.edu>
Subject: Rich Languages From Poor Inputs
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-5391.html

EDITOR: Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini
EDITOR: Robert C. Berwick
TITLE: Rich Languages From Poor Inputs
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Melissa Whatley, Indiana University Bloomington

SUMMARY
The book under review is an edited volume, divided into three parts. The
first presents and evaluates current research into Poverty of the Stimulus
(POS), the second part discusses differences between child and adult grammar,
and the third focuses on the development of children’s spelling and reading
abilities. The volume is a product of a workshop at MIT with the same title
which was dedicated to Carol Chomsky, and the influence of her work is obvious
throughout the book. In the introduction, Chapter 1, the editors survey the
three sections, outline their purposes, and give a summary of each chapter.

Part I considers current research into POS and evaluates recent research that
has challenged it. Chapter 2, by the editors, Robert C. Berwick and Massimo
Piattelli-Palmarini along with Noam Chomsky, outlines the main ideas behind
the concept of POS using data on polar interrogative structures (for example,
[can [eagles that fly] v eat]) in English. This data is then accounted for
structurally rather than linearly via Merge operations. In the second half of
this chapter, the authors outline and evaluate three recent approaches that
attempt to account for the same data, including a string-based approach, a
Bayesian model, and a bigram/trigram model, which uses strings of two or three
words to model language, concluding that none of these approaches accounts for
the original POS problem.

Chapter 3, written by Xuan-Nga Cao Kam and Janet Dean Fodor, replicates the
bi- and tri-gram experiments just mentioned in an attempt to account for POS.
These experiments investigate polar interrogatives containing relative
clauses. The original experiments (Reali & Christiansen 2003, 2005) find that
a bigram model using transitional probabilities between words in
child-directed speech enables the model to make correct grammaticality
judgments 96% of the time. Kam and Fodor replicate these experiments,
pointing out that in the original investigations, and in their own
replication, it is only the bigram [who\that is] that enables the model to
select the correct sentences. Without these bigrams the model needs
phrase-structure information and information about ill-formed relative clauses
in order make minimal errors in grammaticality judgments. The authors
conclude that mere statistical information about possible word strings cannot
substitute for syntactic knowledge, and that learners are able to project
phrase-structure information onto strings of words.

The fourth chapter, by Noam Chomsky, is based on the idea that, while linear
order appears to be a logical way of explaining sentence structure, linguists
must entertain the idea that other explanations of empirical data are better
at accounting for POS problems. Chomsky discusses the structure dependency of
the surface forms of polar interrogatives and argues that syntactic objects
must be labeled in order for the computational system to produce the correct
surface string of words. This chapter concludes that other POS problems must
be resolved in similar ways. Investigators must provide principled
explanations of syntactic phenomena rather than simply descriptive
observations.

In the fifth chapter, Susan Curtiss summarizes recent studies on modularity in
the brain with specific interest in the areas of the brain used for language.
The chapter is divided into two main parts, the first dealing with Big
Modularity (BMod) and the other with Little Modularity (LMod). BMod treats
grammar as a domain-specific mental faculty while LMod treats language as an
entity comprised of distinct submodules that develop and function
independently from one another. Throughout, Curtiss reviews studies on both
normally developing children and children with developmental anomalies, as
well as studies on adults with various conditions, such as aphasia and
dementia, that point towards a modular model of the mind. Curtiss concludes
that, in spite of its recent decline in popularity, this model is the correct
one for investigating the mind.

Chapter six, the last in Part I, is by Lila Gleitman and Barbara Landau and
examines two specific issues that emerge from Carol Chomsky’s work: the
variability in learners’ access to input and the abilities of children to
reconstruct sentence meaning even when structure is covert. The chapter
outlines Carol Chomsky’s studies of blind children acquiring lexical items
that refer to sight as well as her studies of children’s acquisition of
phrases containing a covert infinitival subject versus those with an overt
subject (This doll is hard to see vs. This doll is eager to see), the latter
being acquired much earlier. Children appear to exploit the semantic context
of an utterance in order to correctly interpret the subject of the first
sentence as being someone besides ‘the doll’. Further evidence of the way
children exploit their environments to acquire language is exemplified by the
Home Signs of deaf children with hearing parents. The authors conclude that
language develops from multiple cues in children’s surroundings rather than
simply pairing lexical items with items in the world.

Part II examines discrepancies between child and adult grammars. Chapter 7,
by Jean-Rémy Hochmann and Jacques Mehler, explore recent findings in language
acquisition with the goal of bringing cognitive science and theoretical
linguistics together. The authors are of the opinion that these fields have
much to learn from one another in spite of the fact that they have often
ignored and misrepresented each other. The studies outlined indicate that
children are sensitive to frequencies and perceptual differences, concepts
explored in cognitive science research, in the input that they receive.
Frequency information is later used to divide input into categories that they
then exploit for different functions, ideas explored in theoretical
linguistics. The authors conclude that language acquisition consists of an
initial stage of core representations, triggered by perceptual and
distributional properties of the input, which are later enriched by parameter
settings and yield adult grammars.

In chapter 8, Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi explore the concept of
intervention and its application to language acquisition. The main concept
explored is that the intervention of a syntactic object in a chain of
syntactic objects with similar structural properties initially blocks the
interpretation that the two linked objects are, in fact, connected. This
concept is illustrated in sentences containing object relatives, such as ‘Show
me the lion that the elephant wets [the lion]’. Since ‘the elephant’
intervenes between the linked objects ‘the lion’, and is also an NP,
interpretation and production of this type of sentence is difficult for
children. The authors outline syntactic processes involved in the formation
of the passive that appear to be active in object relative constructions as
well. The principal syntactic process explored here is smuggling, a process
through which multiple syntactic arguments are moved as a chunk. In later
stages of development, intervention effects are voided by the adoption of
these processes, thus yielding the adult version of grammar.

Chapter 9, by Itziar Laka, examines processing strategies in speakers of an
ergative language, Basque, and compares them to processing strategies of
speakers of English. Previous literature has shown that English speakers
process subject gap constructions, such as ‘The woman that saw the man arrived
early’, faster than they do object gap constructions, such as ‘The woman that
the man saw arrived early’. Laka finds that the opposite is true of Basque
speakers, and suggests that his results point to a more general and less
language-dependent model of processing mechanisms, underscoring the importance
of studying a wide variety of languages before coming to conclusions about how
input is processed.

In chapter 10, Ken Wexler examines tough-movement developmental delay. This
phenomenon, first pointed out by Carol Chomsky, is that children have trouble
interpreting the subject of ‘to see’ in sentences such as ‘The doll is hard to
see’ as an entity other than ‘the doll’ until more advanced stages of
syntactic development. Wexler develops an explanation of this phenomenon
using the Universal Phrase Requirement, which restricts the computation needed
to process a sentence and analyses it in phases from the bottom up. In adult
grammar, an NP such as ‘the doll’, which is generated in object position, can
move to IP, while in child grammar, it cannot. This difference is due to the
fact that children initially block the movement of ‘the doll’ to IP because
their grammar has more phases than adult grammar. Wexler further supports his
analysis with evidence of other structures that depend on this same mechanism:
passive raising and object cleft sentences.

Chapter 11, by Julie Anne Legate and Charles Yang, introduces the idea of the
Tolerance Principle, that is, that language learners will be able to tolerate
a certain number of exceptions to linguistic generalizations before resorting
to analyzing each individual item as its own entity. They apply this
principle to the acquisition of English metrical stress, a complicated,
exception-ridden system. Using frequency information from a corpus of
child-directed speech, they find that learners may initially opt for a system
which later drops below the productivity threshold. With more input learners
are able to extract certain patterns that aid acquisition.

Chapter 12, by Thomas G. Bever, outlines areas of current research that
reflect the work of Carol Chomsky: language learning happening over a long
period of time and in spite of individual and environmental differences and
the application of linguistic science to reading. In this chapter, Bever
outlines many recent findings that support these three ideas and in his
conclusion emphasizes the importance of both input and time in language
acquisition, arguing for a more integrated theory of language behavior that
involves both words and syntactic patterns.

In Part III, Chapter 13, by Charles Read and Rebecca Treiman, reviews both
early and later work on children’s invented spelling, the way children spell
words before instruction, which asserts that this spelling is systematic and
has something to do with children’s knowledge of language. The authors
outline work on patterns found in invented spellings as well as pedagogical
implications of such research for both reading and writing and concludes with
the hope that future research will be able to identify stages in the
development of spelling, thus providing implications for curriculum design.

In Chapter 14, Stephanie Gottwald and Maryanne Wolf outline Carol Chomsky’s
work on the relationship between language development and exposure to reading
material, which indicates that a child’s linguistic development is closely
related to the quantity and complexity of the reading material to which he/she
is exposed. The bulk of this chapter focuses on the various components that
contribute to fluent reading, such as letter patterns, knowledge of
grammatical patterns, and the use of language in social contexts. Gottwald
and Wolf present a study using RAVE-O intervention, a reading program designed
to teach readers how to retrieve the sources needed for reading fluency
quickly. Results indicate that RAVE-O is superior to other interventions as
far as word attack and word identification are concerned, and is comparable in
all other studied areas, regardless of students’ socioeconomic class, race, or
IQ. The authors conclude with a call for more research into the connection
between oral language and reading development.

In Chapter 15, Wayne O’Neil deals with the phonology of invented spelling,
linking certain invented spelling patterns to phonetic realities. The author
asserts that the precision that is present in invented spellings shows an
awareness of phonetic detail that is beyond that of most adults. The chapter
lists patterns of invented spelling for both consonant and vowel sounds and
concludes with a discussion of the transition English-speaking children must
make from representing language phonetically to representing it
morphophonemically.

In Chapter 16 Merryl Goldberg connects children’s invented spelling, seen as
evidence of their creativity, with the arts. The chapter emphasizes the use of
the arts as a teaching tool, the arts as a way to express feelings and ideas,
the negativity of misconceptions of children’s creative thinking processes,
and the importance of the arts to invention. The author then connects the
creativity of invented spelling with arts education, viewing invented
spellings as acts of creativity. The latter part of the chapter outlines the
author’s concerns for education, which overlap considerably with Carol
Chomsky’s and her students’ description of the way children learn and develop.
The chapter concludes with the idea that the integration of the arts and
creativity in curriculum encourages risk-taking and can give children a sense
of purpose in learning.

The Epilogue reprints an article by Carol Chomsky from 1986. In this article,
Chomsky presents linguistic data from three deaf and blind research
participants who have learned to communicate using the Tadoma method, a
tactile manner of language acquisition. Chomsky’s subjects perform either at
or above average for hearing individuals on almost all of the tests
administered, the notable exception being use of rising intonation for
questions. Chomsky’s main conclusion is that tactile perception of speech is
enough for language development to occur -- language development occurs even
under conditions of extreme poverty of the stimulus.

EVALUATION
The field of language acquisition, especially second language acquisition, has
recently been inundated with a plethora of theoretical models that question
the validity of cognitive approaches to language learning (see Atkinson, 2011
for a review). These models force us to examine critically concepts that were
previously taken for granted in acquisition, such as the idealized language
that is meant to be the target for learners, the purely cognitive nature of
language, and, essential to this review, poverty of the stimulus (Atkinson,
2002). While the themes in the book are firmly rooted in cognitivist
approaches to language acquisition that recent models of acquisition claim to
be against, the incorporation of ideas beyond those of a traditional
cognitivist approach to language acquisition, such as the incorporation of
context in Chapter 6 and the treatment of frequency in Chapter 7, is obvious.
A further incorporation of language as a tool that learners use and experience
(Beckner et al., 2009; Bybee 2008) will be necessary to approaches to language
acquisition in the future.

The third part of the book offers a much-desired connection between
theoretical linguistics and its practical application to language learning;
however, the connection between this part and the syntax actually discussed in
the first two parts is weak at times. The discussion of invented spelling,
for example, appears to connect better with theories of phonology rather than
syntax. In addition to the lack of a link between the discussion of invented
spelling in the third part and the syntactic theories outlined in the first
two sections, the inclusion of a chapter comparing Basque and English adult
grammars in Chapter 9 feels somewhat out of place in a section dedicated to
the differences between child and adult grammars.

In spite of the disconnect between this last part and the rest of the book,
the volume reviewed here offers a very comprehensive and detailed overview of
the state of current POS research and offers great insight into POS problems
currently under investigation in the field of language acquisition.

REFERENCES
Atkinson, D. (Ed.). (2011). Alternative Approaches to Second Language
Acquisition. New York: Routledge.

Atkinson, D. (2002). Toward a Sociocognitive Approach to Second Language
Acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 86, 525 - 545.

Beckner, C. et al. (2009) Language is a complex adaptive system: Position
Paper [The ''Five Graces Group'']. In N. C. Ellis & D. Larsen-Freeman (Eds.),
Language as a Complex Adaptive System (pp. 1 - 26). University of Michigan
Language Learning Research Club.

Bybee, J. (2008). Usage-based grammar and second language acquisition. In P.
Robinson & N. C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second
language acquisition (pp. 216 - 236). New York: Routledge.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Melissa Whatley is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Her
research interests include second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, and
syntax.
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