AUTHOR: Slabakova, Roumyana
TITLE: Meaning in the Second Language
SERIES: Studies on Language Acquisition [SOLA] 34
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
Kevin McManus, School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University
The principal objective of this monograph is the proposal and explanation of a
new transition theory for the acquisition of meaning: the Bottleneck Hypothesis.
This aptly named theory considers the holdup in the acquisition of meaning to be
functional morphology. In an impressive review of existing transition theories
and language acquisition research at the syntax-semantics interface, Slabakova
provides a convincing account of how the acquisition of meaning is dependent on
the acquisition of functional morphology.
This monograph begins by exploring the critical period hypothesis through
comparisons between child language acquisition and adult second language
acquisition. Biological explanations for the critical period are discussed,
leading to the proposal that there may be multiple critical periods. Claims on
the nature of critical periods arise from assumptions on the architecture of the
language faculty. Slabakova discusses two mainstream conceptions of the language
faculty: Chomsky's (1995) Minimalist Program and Jackendoff's (2002) Parallel
Architecture. This necessary discussion situates the study in current
grammatical theory and provides a springboard into discussion on existing
language acquisition theories. However, not before an insightful look at
psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research on language acquisition.
The Bottleneck Hypothesis is proposed on a review of current transition
theories, which are considered to either ''suffer from being untestable proposals
of how things might look in the L2 acquisition process'' (p.118) or, while
perhaps testable, they do not support ''recent research on the L2 acquisition of
semantics'' (ibid). The Bottleneck Hypothesis seeks to obviate such shortcomings
and is centered on the acquisition of functional morphology: ''functional
morphology is the bottleneck, syntax and semantics flow smoothly'' (p.100). For
Slabakova, syntax and semantics 'flow', meaning that knowledge of syntax and
semantics emerge before full suppliance of functional morphology, a view which
can be dubbed semantics-before-morphology. Morphology is difficult for a number
of reasons, but most importantly due to mapping: functional meanings can be
represented differently in different languages. The task for the learner is to
work out how functional meanings are represented in the second language.
Slabakova reviews an impressive amount of empirical evidence which lends support
to the Bottleneck Hypothesis. Firstly, data from simple syntax-complex semantics
are reviewed, the bulk of which deal with aspect. Then, ten studies from complex
syntax-simple semantics are reviewed; for example on quantification, scrambling,
wh-movement. These data give rise to two main conclusions with regard to
syntax-semantics mismatches: (1) mapping semantics to new inflectional
morphology and other grammatical morphemes slows down acquisition; and (2)
syntax is fully acquirable: ''in no case is syntax an impenetrable barrier to
full achievement'' (p.260). Slabakova sees functional morphology as a bottleneck
because ''it never presents complete closure to learning the syntax-semantics
mismatches'' (p.192-3). In sum, the ''acquisition of inflectional morphology, and
more specifically their syntactic and semantic feature information, is a
necessary and sufficient condition for the acquisition of meaning'' (p.267).
This monograph deals with concept-to-form mapping at the syntax-semantics
interface, where the expression of semantics differs between the learner's first
language and the second language. In the case of aspect, this can involve
inflectional morphology, depending on the language: the same semantics are
expressed in different ways.
The valuable contribution of this monograph to the acquisition of meaning in a
second language is timely after initial experimental studies have probed both
complex semantics (e.g. Montrul and Slabakova, 2003) and simple semantics (e.g.
Dekydtspotter, 2001). Slabakova's critical review and proposal of the Bottleneck
Hypothesis will allow researchers to take stock of current developments in the
field. This is a valuable contribution to the field of language acquisition and
will be of significant interest to researchers and graduate students.
Chomsky, N. (1995). _The Minimalist Program_. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dekydtspotter, L. (2001). ''The Universal Parser and interlanguage:
Domain-specific mental organization in the comprehension of combien
interrogatives in English-French interlanguage''. _Second Language Research_,
Jackendoff, R. (2002). _Foundations of Language_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Montrul, S. and Slabakova, R. (2003). ''Competence similarities between native
and near-native speakers: An investigation of the preterite/imperfect contrast
in Spanish''. _Studies in Second Language Acquisition_, 25:351-398.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Kevin McManus is a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle
University. His PhD is a cross-linguistic investigation into the second language
acquisition of aspect: ''The Development of Aspect in a Second Language: Mapping
Form-to-Concept'' (Supervised by: Prof. Florence Myles and Dr. Richard
Waltereit). His research interests include: semantics, language acquisition, and
the philosophy of language.