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Review of  Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Katherine Messenger
Book Title: Language Acquisition
Book Author: Susan H. Foster-Cohen
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Book Announcement: 21.2569

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EDITOR: Susan Foster-Cohen
TITLE: Language Acquisition
SERIES TITLE: Palgrave Advances in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2009

Katherine Messenger, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at


'Language Acquisition' is an edited volume on language acquisition research in
its broadest sense -- that is, it presents perspectives on the development of
syntax, morphology, phonology and pragmatics, of comprehension and production,
of spoken and manual language learning, and of first, second and bilingual
language learners and learners with linguistic and physiological impairment. The
aim of this wide-scoping presentation is not to introduce the novice to the
background themes of this field but rather to inspire the advanced scholar of
language development -- postgraduate and research students and potentially also
advanced undergraduate students -- to continue work in this field. This book is
intended to provide a snapshot of the state of the art in language acquisition
research. As such, it should also be of interest to more experienced researchers
seeking insights into other areas of language acquisition.

The volume consists of 13 papers in three sections: Explaining Language
Acquisition; Windows on Language Acquisition; Language Acquisition Culture and
Diversity. These are prefaced with an introduction by the editor, Susan
Foster-Cohen, who gives an overview of language acquisition research, discussing
the major themes and questions that have dominated and divided the field, as
well as the variety of disciplines and associated approaches that have pursued
language acquisition research. Foster-Cohen provides a refreshingly open-minded
discussion of the strengths and weakness of approaches that sit on opposing
sides of well-established divides. The introduction sets a multi-disciplinary
tone and highlights some of the themes and ideas that connect the papers of the
three subparts and occasionally that link papers across the whole collection.

The remainder of this review is divided into a brief description of the papers
in the three sections, followed by a critical evaluation of the collection.

Part One: 'Explaining Language Acquisition'
The first section consists of five papers, unified by such themes as the role of
attention, input and interaction in language development, though they cover such
seemingly disparate areas of research in first language acquisition as phonology
and word learning (Vihman, Chapter 1), language segmentation (Peters, Chapter
2), the nature and role of child directed speech (Saxton, Chapter 3) and
universal grammar (Guasti, Chapter 4) and also approaches to second language
acquisition (Gass, Chapter 5). Upon reading, the overall theme seems to be how
the language acquisition process begins and proceeds: the section presents a
variety of theories on how children and second language learners decipher and
make use of the input to which they are exposed to form their first words and
word combinations and to make progress into and along the language development path.

Chapter 1: 'Word Learning and the Origins of Phonological Systems' by Vihman
examines the role of implicit learning mechanisms in the development of a first
language. She presents a model of language development based on cycles of
implicit and explicit learning phases. This model proposes that the child uses
distributional analyses of the input to guide the identification and formation
of first words, which, once acquired, can form the basis of further
distributional analyses leading to the acquisition of a grammar.

In Chapter 2, 'Cracking the Language Code: Processing Strategies in First
Language Acquisition', Peters proposes the idea of language development as a
dynamic process of interaction between external influences (the input language,
the social contexts of language, the desire to communicate) and internal factors
(the child's physical, mental and cognitive development). She puts forward a
theory of language development in which internal drives motivate the child to
language learning through segmentation and pattern extraction.

Chapter 3, 'The Inevitability of Child Directed Speech' by Saxton provides the
reader with an updated theory of the role and effects of child-directed speech
(CDS) on first language acquisition. Saxton highlights the importance of the
interactive nature of CDS, which he proposes can have an impact on language
learning by providing negative feedback when children make production errors.
Whilst he does not argue that such feedback is necessary for language
development, he points out the facilitating effect that this pervasive type of
interactive input may have.

Chapter 4 introduces the nativist approach to language acquisition: Guasti's
chapter 'Universal Grammar Approaches to Language Acquisition' discusses the
idea that the learner comes to the language acquisition task endowed with
abstract knowledge of language -- a universal grammar -- that guides the
learning process. She illustrates her argument with examples from generative
linguistic theory of abstract rules that require knowledge of underlying
syntactic structure. She also draws on evidence from deaf children learning sign
language from non-native signers in a discussion of the idea of 'the poverty of
the stimulus'.

The final chapter of Part 1, Chapter 5 on 'Second Language Acquisition', where
Gass presents a thorough overview. She also discusses an 'interaction' approach
to second language acquisition, invoking a number of concepts integral to
acquisition: the importance of appropriately characterizing the 'input' the
learner is exposed to; how 'interaction' between learner and native speaker can
influence learning and the role that 'output' plays in promoting language
development. A key theme is the role of attention: understanding the learner's
perception of the learning environment.

Part Two: 'Windows on Language Acquisition'
The second section focuses on the varied circumstances in which language
acquisition takes place. It presents research on typical first (Chapters 7 and
8) and second language learners (Kuiper et al., Chapter 9) and learners
acquiring language in unusual circumstances, such as deaf children or children
with prenatal stroke or Williams Syndrome (Reilly, Chapter 6), as well as
research on how the development of language relates to the development of
emotion (Chapter 6) and thought, such as theory of mind (de Villiers and de
Villiers, Chapter 7) and pragmatic processing (Pouscolous and Noveck, Chapter
8). Thus this part explores how research with populations other than
typically-developing children can inform theories of language acquisition.

Chapter 6: 'Language and the Many Faces of Emotion' by Reilly examines the
relationship between developing language and developing expressions of emotion
and the neural architecture underlying these behaviours. She shows how the
developmental paths of these two behaviours interact, presenting evidence from
children with prenatal stroke, from children acquiring sign language, in which
facial expressions are used, for example, to signal questions and from
typically-developing children and children with Williams Syndrome, examining the
development of affective expression in story narration for both groups.

In Chapter 7, 'The Evolution of a Theory of Theory of Mind', de Villiers and de
Villiers discuss the research that has shaped their theory that children's
ability to understand other people's false beliefs hinges on a certain level of
grammatical development being reached. They discuss the relationship between
children's ability to understand complement clauses and verbs of communication
and to respond correctly in certain false-belief tasks. They draw on evidence
from typically-developing children of a variety of languages as well as children
with delayed development.

Chapter 8, 'Going beyond Semantics: the Development of Pragmatic Enrichment' by
Pouscolous and Noveck, presents research at a later stage of language
development: the authors examine the development of pragmatic processing of
logical terms such as 'or' and 'some' in five to nine-year old children. They
suggest that the ability to draw pragmatically enriched inferences on the use of
these terms emerges gradually, cross-linguistically, with children first making
more literal interpretations. Although they also demonstrate that when other
demands are reduced, younger children do show the ability to draw pragmatic

As in the first section, the final chapter is reserved for second language
acquisition. Chapter 9, 'The Acquisition of Phrasal Vocabulary' by Kuiper,
Columbus and Schmitt, explores second language learners use of formulaic
language -- fixed, memorized chunks or phrases that are processed more
efficiently than if generated creatively. Using cloze tests, the authors find
that learners do not however appear to learn these formulaic phrases which could
be useful to their second language learning.

Part Three: 'Language Acquisition Culture and Diversity'
The final section contains four chapters exploring language acquisition and use
in different cultural contexts through discussions of individual variation in
bilingual language acquisition (Müller, Chapter 10), of cross-linguistic
comparisons of discourse (Hickmann, Chapter 11), of children's development of
story narration skills (Berman, Chapter 12) and finally of cross-cultural
literacy development in the home (McNaughton et al., Chapter 13).

The first chapter of this section, Chapter 10: 'Language Development in
Simultaneous Bilingual Children' by Müller, examines the language development of
individual children acquiring two languages simultaneously with reference
cross-linguistic influence and language dominance. She emphasizes the role of
individual differences in development related to the subsystems of the
particular languages being acquired and the strategies the individual child
applies to their acquisition.

Chapter 11, 'Universals and Cross-Linguistic Variability in Children's
Discourse' by Hickmann, discusses the influence of linguistic variation in the
marking of discourse elements, such as reference to space, time and entities, on
language acquisition. She examines evidence from children acquiring languages
that denote these elements in very different ways, reaching the conclusion that
observed similarities in the acquisition of diverse discourse marking types is
evidence for domain-general cognitive development underpinning this acquisition.

Chapter 12, 'Trends in Research on Narrative Development' by Berman, continues
the discussion on children's discourse skills with reference to the development
of narrative discourse and storytelling. Berman's approach focuses on the
relationship between children's acquisition of linguistic forms and the function
of these forms in narration. She discusses research examining children's
relatively prolonged development of narrative discourse features such as
reference, temporality, evaluation and connectivity.

Chapter 13, 'Family Literacy Activities' by McNaughton, Amituanai-Toloa and
Wolfgramm-Foliaki, explores family attitudes to literacy and changes in these
ideas through a discussion of case-studies of reading activities within two
minority communities in New Zealand. They examine the interaction between family
reading practices and external agents, such as school literacy practices, with
the ultimate goal of informing educational programmes for improving literacy.


Matters of style aside, in my opinion this book rises to the challenge of
providing a broad overview of the field of language acquisition that will inform
and inspire students and researchers alike. It certainly meets the aim of
providing a wide-ranging collection of ideas that will motivate the reader to
think and challenge existing theories. It draws together a varied range of
research based on very different populations, techniques and a wide variety of
languages. Many key ideas in language acquisition research are covered, such as
the nature of the initial state, mechanisms for learning, the role of input and
social factors, the influence of cognitive development. It is refreshingly
unbiased in its choice of subjects, crossing the usual dividing lines typical of
the field, and leaving the reader to decide which provides the most convincing
account of language development. The book as a whole embodies a key point, that
progress in the field relies on and therefore should embrace interactive and
multi-disciplinary research.

Though the papers are targeted at the advanced student or researcher and as such
assume a certain level of knowledge of linguistic and developmental terminology
and concepts, most of the chapters are in fact written in a very accessible
style and do provide broad overviews of their subject area which will give the
reader a comprehensive understanding of the background of their topic. Most
chapters present a discussion of the background literature on their subject,
coverage of up-to-date research and provide suggestions for future research.
Thus, the volume provides an interesting collection of research that should
indeed inspire language acquisition students and researchers to new directions.

However, given the effort to cover such a broad scope of language acquisition
research, readers may find that something of interest has not been covered -- of
course, only so many topics can be covered in 13 chapters. Nonetheless as the
goal was to provide a snapshot of developmental linguistics at the beginning of
the twenty-first century, one might expect to see a chapter on research made
possible by recent technological advances, such as within neuroscience --
particularly since Foster-Cohen hints at this direction in the introduction. Yet
no papers discuss research based on neuroscientific methods (ERP, fMRI) nor are
other recent methods of investigation represented, such as computer modeling of
language development or methods of examining on-line language processing like

Naturally for an edited collection of papers, the style and tone of each paper
varies and I felt that some chapters were more successful (in particular the
chapters by Saxton and by Gass) at presenting a clear and broad-minded overview
of their subject than others. A nice feature of the collection is that the
editor sometimes provides notes within chapters guiding the reader to other
chapters of the volume that discuss the same subject matter; it's only a shame
that, though this occurs quite frequently within the first part, it rarely
occurs in later chapters.

A minor criticism of this book is purely editorial: chapter titles, sub-headings
and author names are written all in lower case, an unattractive formatting
choice that is fortunately not maintained throughout the text of the articles.

On the whole, I found this to be a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable
collection which was for the most part well-written and accessible. It provides
informative background to various disciplines within language acquisition as
well as promoting ideas for future research.

Katherine Messenger is a post-doctoral research scholar in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include first language acquisition and the application of psycholinguistic methods to language acquisition research. Her research currently focuses on children's comprehension and production of passive structures through preferential-looking and syntactic priming studies.

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ISBN: 0230500307
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