Tomasello, Michael, and Elizabeth Bates, ed. (2001) Language
Development: The Essential Readings. Blackwell Publishers, viii+375pp,
paperback ISBN 0-631-21744-4, $16.99.
Dr. Tabea Becker, Institut für deutsche Sprache und Literatur,
Universität Dortmund, Germany
CONTENTS AND PURPOSE DESCRIPTION
Tomasello's and Bates's book is a compilation of nineteen papers on
language acquisition. It is designed mainly for students, though I would
say, for a rather advanced level. Most of these papers have been
published elsewhere before. In this edition, however, they have been
adapted, updated or shortened for better accessibility. From these
papers I have selected several which are briefly summarized here.
The book is divided into 4 major parts, each beginning with a short and
concise introduction. Part I contains five papers and is titled
"Introduction to Speech Perception".
The first paper by Peter W. Jusczyk is on "Finding and Remembering
Words: Some Beginnings by English-Learning Infants". By reviewing
several studies Jusczyk gathers evidence that infants are fairly able to
segment words from fluent speech by about 7,5 months. He presents two
strategies infants seem to apply and gives further evidence that to do
so they retain information about frequently used words.
Janet F. Werker and Renée N. Desjardins discuss phoneme perception in
the first year of life. They conclude that infants move from a universal
to a language-specific phoneme perception.
A Study on "Language Discrimination by Human Newborns and by Cotton-Top
Tamarin Monkeys" is presented by Franck Ramus et al. It reveals striking
similarities as well as interesting differences on speech perception
between newborns and monkeys (both species can discriminate between
Dutch and Japanese). A finding which contributes to the discussion about
the innateness of specialized capacities for language comprehension and
Rebecca L. Gomez and LouAnn Gerken have studied artificial language
learning in infants. With this type of research they want to demonstrate
with what kind of abilities infants are equipped for parsing linguistic
input. Studies show that these abilities appear to identify word-like
constituents in fluent speech, constraints on grammatical word order and
some ability to abstract.
Part II is an introduction to word learning. The first paper by Helen I.
Shwe and Ellen M. Markmann deals with "Children's Appreciation of the
Mental Impact of Their Communicative Signals". In a study they tested
whether 30 month old children are aware that their communicative signals
have an impact on the mental state of their listeners, by observing
their reaction to receiving or not receiving a desired object. Both
conditions were tested first in a situation with positive understanding
between child and interlocutor and second with negative understanding.
The children used significantly more verbal devices to correct the
negative understanding then to correct the action.
M. C. Caselli et al. compare the lexical development in English and
Italian. Their aim is to investigate cross-linguistic differences in the
onset and growth of nouns and verbs and universal vs. language-specific
patterns in the development of function words. While they found no
evidence supporting the idea that verbs or predicative terms are
acquired earlier in languages favoring verbs due to input conditions
such as Italian, there seem to be marked similarities in the acquisition
of function words and closed class words.
Part III of this volume "Grammatical Development" is introduced by a
paper of one of the editors, Michael Tomasello, on "The Item-based
Nature of Children's Early Syntactic Development", in which he discusses
arguments for the emergence of linguistic structures from
social-interactive processes. From this interactive perspective he
describes the process of grammaticalization drawing on findings from
several observational studies. In this he attacks the "continuity
assumption" (see also Tomasello 2000) and holds that children's early
linguistic competence is item based, lacking syntactic categories or
An article by N. Akhtar explores the acquisition of basic word order.
Akhtar presents a study where children were confronted with pseudo words
describing novel actions in novel (non-SVO) grammatical structures. The
results "support the hypothesis that acquisition of a general
understanding of the syntactic significance of word order is a gradual
process" and therefor do not fit with strong parameter setting models of
A further interesting paper treats the "Acquisition of Plural Marking in
English and German Revisited: Schemata Versus Rules" by K.-M. Köpcke. He
reanalyzes data from experiments with nonsense words (e.g. the famous
study by Berko (1958)) which he interprets as evidence for a
schema-learning model based on relative cue-strength. Here he addresses
one of the central issues that feature in the controversial debate of
schema versus rule governed acquisition (for a counter perspective see
Marcus et al. 1995 or more accessible for students Pinker 1999).
Dan I. Slobin outlines in his paper "Form/Function Relations: How Do
Children Find Out What They Are?" the notion of typological
bootstrapping. He states that each language has over time developed its
own typological character. The child picks up various pieces of the
coherent system each language represents and interrelates them with
inherent typological factors. In the course of acquiring a certain
language form-function relations thus become systematically patterned.
The final section of this book is titled "Brains, Genes, and Computation
in Language Development".
It begins with an article by Jeffrey L. Elman on "Connectionism and
Language Acquisition". Since various articles in this volume are
affiliated to the connectionist paradigm, a student is introduced
somewhat late to this theoretical approach. Though very informative, it
is too short for a general introduction one would hope for.
Despite its complex topic, B. Clancy and B. Finlay's paper on "Neural
Correlates of Early Language Learning" is very readable. The first part
successively describes the different stages of development and
maturation the human brain undergoes from the first prenatal weeks to
the early postnatal period. The second part compares these developments
and events to the stages of language acquisition. The authors interpret
their comparison not as neuronal predisposition for language but rather
as a general "readiness for learning", thereby qualifying the changes
which take place as experience driven.
The volume's last article is a contribution of A. Karmiloff-Smith's,
titled "Development itself is the key to understanding developmental
disorders". This title very well summarizes her main point, in that she
links several language deficiencies occurring (or not occurring) in
patients with SLI or Williams syndrome to general developmental
disorders which are only indirectly connected with genetic disorders.
Most papers are very readable with usually a short summary at the end
and well suited for advanced students. Altogether the papers are
method-oriented, describing the latest studies and test-designs, never
just theory based. This not only provides a good insight to research at
its core but helps very much to underline and illustrate the arguments
which are made. Most papers are well balanced between giving an
intelligible and scientifically correct description of their test
designs and avoiding confusing or superfluous tables and statistical
Although the authors claim to have avoided jargon there are still enough
technical terms left making a glossary desirable. Especially since it is
advertised to and indeed, does cover a wide range of disciplines, also
one of its major strengths.
Nevertheless, all the papers in this book represent a similar
theoretical approach, namely the connectionist and interactive approach,
a bias readily admitted. But despite this admittance a more general
introduction to this biased perspective is missing. Nor do we find
references or a placement regarding other theoretical approaches.
A further point of criticism I find to be the concentration on the very
early phases of language development. No paper deals with older
children, which might leave a big gap from the first two word sentences
to adult syntax and vocabulary.
Therefor, to cover the full scope of current acquisition theories within
the context of a class on language development further readings are
necessary. Though it is on one hand quite convincing to look at language
acquisition from one stringent perspective, on the other hand one of the
most complex phenomena in the field of linguistics should not be treated
without a wide scope of viewpoints. Combined with other readings this
book can be warmly recommended for advanced students as well as any
other scholar interested in latest research on child language acquisition.
Berko, J. (1958) The child's learning of English morphology. Word 14,
Marcus, G. et al. (1995) German inflection: the exception that proves
the rule. Cognitive Psychology 29, 189-256.
Pinker, S. (1999) Words and Rules.
Tomasello, M. (2000) Do young children have adult syntactic competence?
Cognition 74, 209-253.
After doing my PhD dissertation at the Technical University of Darmstadt,
I'm now teaching at the University of Dortmund. I first began my
education at the University of California, Los Angeles, though not yet
in linguistics. I completed my M. A. at the Technical University
Darmstadt in 1996. My subjects were German and English linguistics and
Art History. My main research interests are language acquisition,
cognitive linguistics, language processing, bilingualism and narrative.