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Review of  Developmental Psycholinguistics

Reviewer: Hannah Sowden
Book Title: Developmental Psycholinguistics
Book Author: Irina A. Sekerina Eva M. Fernández Harald Clahsen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 19.2815

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EDITORS: Sekerina, Irina A.; Fernandez, Eva M.; Clahsen, Harald
TITLE: Developmental Psycholinguistics
SUBTITLE: On-line methods in children's language processing
SERIES: Language Acquisition and Language Disorders
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2008

Hannah Sowden, Department of Human Communication Sciences, Sheffield University

This book is a direct result of the Workshop on On-line Methods in Children's
Language Processing, held at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New
York in 2006. It aims to introduce the reader to a variety of techniques which
are currently emerging in the field of developmental psycholinguistics. The
emphasis is on tapping into language processing in real time. The book
represents the change of focus occurring in the study of language development
from a mainly offline assessment of children's competence to the online
investigation of the interaction between competence and performance factors.

The book is divided into six chapters, based around different methods. Each
chapter follows a similar format. The different methods are first introduced
then assessed in terms of viability in adapting the techniques to the
investigation of child language. Finally principal research findings are given,
in the form of a review of each team's research program. The methods included
are event-related brain potentials (ERP), eye tracking, looking-while-listening
and reaction time techniques.

Chapter 1 (Harald Clahsen) is devoted to behavioral methods. Several behavioral
tasks including word monitoring, probe recognition, and speeded grammaticality
judgment are reviewed. The remaining tasks (self paced reading and self paced
listening, cross-modal priming and syntactic priming, and speeded production)
are described in more detail, based around investigations undertaken by the
research team. The sections on methodological issues are balanced, detailing the
advantages of such methods and the complexities and difficulties in adapting
such techniques to children. The discussion of methodology is based around four
criteria. The first regards the time sensitivity of the measure, the second
concerns the naturalness or artificiality of the task. The remaining criteria
deal with practicalities of design and execution. First is the task child
appropriate, or too challenging, and finally is the equipment transportable and
easy to set up for use with children who may not be able to attend the
laboratory. The final section justifies the use of these techniques against the
newly emerging physiological measures, suggesting that behavioral tasks may be
used to provide converging evidence, supplementing other methodologies. The
chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the advantages of this approach.

Chapter 2 (Claudia Mannel and Angela D. Friederici) provides a detailed
introduction to event-related brain potentials (ERP). The chapter assumes little
knowledge on the part of the reader and comprehensively introduces the main
concepts of this technique as it applies to adults, before candidly discussing
the real difficulties facing developmental researchers. Such problems include
the shorter attention span of infants, the necessity of keeping still during
experimentation, and limited number of trials. This is explored further in the
illuminating appendix to this chapter where the authors explain in detail their
procedures to overcome these problems. The remainder of this chapter reviews a
number of studies, revealing the development of most areas of language including
processing of phonological and prosodic, lexical-semantic and syntactic
information. Taken together these studies provide valuable information about the
development of receptive processing in the first three years of life. The
chapter ends with an extremely clear summary, drawing together the many threads
discussed in this complex chapter.

Chapters 3 and 4 both use eye tracking techniques, but vary in the experimental
design and necessary equipment. In Chapter 3, John C. Trueswell reviews the use
of eye tracking in the investigation of language. He first describes three
methods of recording eye movements (head mounted and remote eye tracking
systems, and the ''poor man's eye tracker'') discussing the advantages and
disadvantages of each. As with ERP, this technique requires some adaptation to
be used successfully with children, especially in terms of the time taken to
calibrate the systems. The second part of the chapter makes explicit several
assumptions of this method, which allow eye movements to be linked to syntactic
parsing. Using discussion illustrated by data examples the theoretical base of
the assumptions are argued to be valid. The chapter concludes that eye tracking
is a valuable technique but cautions the researcher to continually bear in mind
that developmental changes in attentional control and cognitive control can
interact with the observations from the method, although this is true of all
investigations into development.

Chapter 4 (Anne Fernald, Renate Zangl, Ana Luz Portillo, Virginia A. Marchman)
describes a particular paradigm, looking-while-listening, in considerable depth.
A brief historical review provides the context for the emergence of this
technique, and a rationale for its use. This is followed by a break-down of the
method including choice of participants, preparation of stimuli, construction of
tasks, apparatus, testing procedure, coding procedure and reliability, and data
cleaning. The final section discusses interpretation of the resulting data and
describes procedures, such as onset-contingent plots, profile plots and measures
of professing efficiency, which have been developed by the research team. This
fairly abstract discussion is firmly grounded throughout by examples of data
gleaned from previous investigations. Although this methodology shares
similarities with preferential looking, due to the frame by frame analysis of
the video data it provides high-resolution real time measures of speech
processing. Naturally this invokes a considerable increase in time and effort
during the coding procedure but the detailed analysis which this allows more
than provides compensation.

Chapter 5 (Jesse Snedeker and Malathi Thothathiri) departs somewhat from the
format of the rest of the book as it aligns more with a research paper than a
review of a particular methodology. A brief review of syntactic development is
provided followed by a detailed discussion of the methodology used to
investigate early syntactic development. This methodology combines syntactic
priming with eye tracking. The chapter then reports preliminary findings of this
investigation with three and four year olds and discusses the implications of
these findings and future directions for this line of research.

Chapter 6 (Helen Smith Cairns) concludes the book. A brief history of the study
of language development opens this engagingly written chapter. It covers major
areas of research since the late 1950's and culminates with the workshop on
online methods which forms the backbone of this book. The opportunity is taken
to discuss more papers which were presented at this workshop but which were not
included in the book. The chapter concludes with a hopeful look to the future.
This chapter is firmly set within the Chomskyan tradition and makes no mention
of alternative theories.

As a collection of techniques to tap into online processing, this book makes a
real contribution. It is a valuable snapshot of an increasingly prominent method
of investigating language processing. The individual chapters work well to
introduce the respective methodologies, especially in the specific problems
facing developmental researchers interested in adapting such techniques to
children. It will work as a reference book, as a resource for experimental
design, and as inspiration for increasingly complex investigations into language

Although not specifically aimed at students several of the chapters provide good
introductions to various physiological techniques, and the thoughtful
discussions on adapting these methods to children's needs will be beneficial to
all researchers in the area. The overall feeling of the book is one of
excitement at the possibilities that these relatively new techniques open up,
and of assessing current limitations and successes. Although the editors claim
that the book will be of interest to speech and language therapists and early
childhood educators I feel that it will appeal more to researchers as its
content is theoretical rather than practical.

As a final note, the final chapter perhaps missed an opportunity by focusing
exclusively on Chomskyan theory, as the developments in methodology so well
captured in this book are also of benefit to those who do not ascribe to this
view of language development.

Hannah Sowden is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the department of Human
Communication Sciences at Sheffield University. Her research is focused on the
early development of language and gesture in children with autism.