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 presented.
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 learning.
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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