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Review of  The Acquisition of Spanish

Reviewer: María Cristina Cuervo
Book Title: The Acquisition of Spanish
Book Author: Silvina A Montrul
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 16.2179

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Date: Mon, 11 Jul 2005 01:00:53 -0400
From: María Cristina Cuervo
Subject: The Acquisition of Spanish: Morphosyntactic development ...

AUTHOR: Montrul, Silvina A.
TITLE: The Acquisition of Spanish
SUBTITLE: Morphosyntactic development in monolingual and bilingual
L1 acquisition and adult L2 acquisition
SERIES: Language Acquisition and Language Disorders 37
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

María Cristina Cuervo, Department of Spanish and Portuguese,
University of Toronto


'The Acquisition of Spanish' presents, compares and discusses an
impressive range of morphosyntactic aspects in the development of
Spanish as a first and second language in monolingual and bilingual
situations. The book admirably fills a gap in acquisition literature by
bringing together Spanish data and theoretical discussion that have
previously been dispersed and by opening a dialogue among the
three instances of acquisition in Spanish and other languages.

The book is organized around the main syntactic and morphological
properties of Spanish whose acquisition has been researched within
generative grammar. The main hypotheses concerning the status of
child and interlanguage grammars in first and second language
acquisition guide the interpretation of empirical data from Spanish and
the contrast with data from other languages. The assumptions,
predictions and major challenges for these hypotheses are discussed
throughout the book.

Montrul defends the view that all instances of language development
(i.e. monolingual and bilingual first language acquisition and second
language acquisition (SLA)) are guided and constrained by Universal
Grammar (UG). Differences between the acquisition of morphosyntax
in the three situations should and can be explained by other linguistic
or extra-linguistic factors, such as phonological underdevelopment,
performance errors, interfaces with other modules of the grammar, the
role of the first language (L1), cognitive maturation, quality and
amount of input.

In Chapter 1, 'Theoretical foundations', the author introduces the
basic concepts of Universal Grammar and the general approach to the
acquisition of language that it implies. Next, the main theoretical
questions that arise for first, bilingual, and second language
acquisition (SLA) are presented in turn, intertwined with the alternative
positions that frame the debate in each field and throughout the book:
Continuity versus Non-continuity and Maturation in first language
acquisition; the debate on the initial state in bilingual development
between the initial unitary system and the Language Differentiation
Hypothesis; full, partial or no access to UG and the role of L1 in SLA.
A brief overview of the general characteristics of Spanish grammar is
given at the end of this chapter.

Subsequent chapters are organized around areas of Spanish clause
structure: the noun phrase, functional verbal projections, expression
of subjects and objects, the left periphery and the verbal phrase.
Every chapter is organized in the same fashion. First, the author
presents a description and theoretical approach to the grammatical
issues whose acquisition is to be discussed in the chapter. Secondly,
she formulates the main questions that the grammatical aspect poses
for first language acquisition, and presents a critical discussion of
research results and how they bear on the relevant alternative
theoretical approaches to acquisition. She next discusses any relevant
research in early bilingualism. The next section addresses theoretical
and empirical discussion in second language acquisition. Each
chapter closes with a summary of developmental facts, stressing the
similarities and differences between the three instances of acquisition.
How results considered all together bear on theoretical issues of
acquisition is sometimes discussed in this concluding section.

Chapter 2, 'Morphosyntax of the noun phrase', focuses on the
acquisition of several properties of the Spanish determiner phrase
(DP). This includes the critical evaluation of studies on production and
knowledge of determiners and protodeterminers, noun-drop, word
order, gender and number agreement and the interrelation among
them. Research on bilingual children and adult SLA compare
acquisition in Spanish to Basque, English and German.

In Chapter 3, 'Morphosyntax of the verb phrase', Montrul presents
and discusses findings in the acquisition of tense, finiteness, aspect
and mood. The acquisition of these elements of a clause involve the
acquisition of abstract features and functional projections, inflectional
morphology, their semantics and their syntactic consequences (e.g.
subject agreement, verb movement). Cross linguistic comparisons
include Basque, Catalan, French, English and other Germanic

In Chapter 4, 'Subject and object pronouns', the acquisition of the
parameters that constrain subject and object expression is discussed.
The areas investigated in monolingual and bilingual child acquisition
and in adult SLA include null subjects, direct and indirect object clitics
(their distribution, morphology and placement), null objects, and
knowledge of binding. Languages other than Spanish investigated in
bilingual situations and as L1 in SLA are French, English, Basque,
Korean, Cantonese, Danish and Swedish. The effect of dialectal
variation in Spanish is also addressed, particularly for null subjects.

Chapter 5, 'Topics, questions, embedding, and movement', centres on
the acquisition of the top layers of clause structure, which are taken to
provide the interface between syntax and pragmatics. Studies
reviewed concern the projection of the complementizer phrase (CP),
wh-movement, negation, imperatives, relative clauses, topic and
focus. Language comparisons include English, French, Basque and

Chapter 6, 'Verb meaning and lexical parameters' examines argument
structure and how it is projected or constructed in the syntax, as well
as its morphological expression (the author refers to these issues
as "aspects of lexical semantics"). The aspects tested in children and
adults reviewed in this chapter include the knowledge of the distinction
between unaccusatives and unergatives, the transitivity alternation
(causative/inchoative) and of their syntactic consequences,
multifunctional clitics ('se' and dative clitics), the semantics and
morphosyntax of psych-predicates, and the compounding parameter.
Data analyzed come from Spanish, English, Italian, Catalan, Turkish
and French.

Throughout the book, the debate is framed within the central
opposition between the Continuity (Pinker 1984, 1989) and No
Continuity views. The different hypotheses developed within
generative grammar that represent this opposition in each instance of
acquisition are discussed and evaluated against the available data.
Occasionally, hypotheses put forward from other approaches are also
addressed. Besides the general approaches to acquisition, some of
the other more specific hypotheses and views discussed in the book
are the Optional Infinitive Stage, the Truncation Hypothesis, Aspect
before Tense Hypothesis, Lexical Aspect Hypothesis, Missing Surface
Inflection Hypothesis, Delay of principle B Effect, Semantic
Bootstrapping, and Syntactic Bootstrapping.

The book closes with a general discussion of the empirical data and
how they inform theories of language acquisition. By and large,
Spanish acquisition data evidences early presence of functional
categories, syntactic knowledge and, in the case of SLA, features or
parameter settings that are not transferred from L1. Montrul
concludes by arguing that, taken together, results are consistent only
with the Continuity view which, in contrast with the No Continuity and
Maturation, is able to provide "a unified explanation of monolingual
and bilingual first language acquisition and of adult second language
acquisition" (p. 362). Functional categories are produced much earlier
in Spanish than in several of the other languages studied, which might
be accounted for by language-specific properties of Spanish (e.g. rich
verbal and nominal agreement). This suggests that the strong
versions of the Continuity hypothesis (Full Competence: Poeppel and
Wexler 1993, Hyams 1996, Penner and Weissenborn 1996; Full
Access: White (1989) , Shwartz and Sprouse (1996), among others)
might be correct, but Montrul leaves the door open for an explanation
of developmental effects within a weaker version of Continuity
(Gradual Structure Building: Radford (1996), or Lexical Learning:
Clahsen, Parodi and Penke (1993), among others). This debate also
rests on how data are analyzed; in particular, on whether performance
rather than competence may be the source of non-target behaviour.
Ultimately, therefore, it rests on our understanding of how
performance production and comprehension systems are integrated
with knowledge of language.


'The Acquisition of Spanish' is well written and follows a good and
organization of the data and theoretical issues. The general and
chapter-internal organization of the book, the subject and author
indexes, and cross-referencing make it not only reader-friendly but
also flexible for readers of diverse interests. The book can be read as
a whole, or one may choose a grammatical phenomenon and follow it
in the three instances of language acquisition. Alternatively, a reader
may focus on one debate in one of the acquisition situations and
follow it across the different sets of empirical data.

The descriptive presentation of the grammatical issues at the
beginning of each chapter is useful even for readers familiar with the
facts, since they are presented together with some of the current
debates they produce within generative linguistics. In these
descriptions of a large set of Spanish data, there are very few
inaccuracies or inconsistencies ("genitive adjectives do not agree in
gender" (p. 34), which disregards first person plural 'nuestr-o/-a' and
Peninsular Spanish second plural 'vuestr-o/-a'); dative arguments -
which are always preceded by 'a' in Spanish- are sometimes
presented as PPs (p. 312) and sometimes as DPs (p. 340-342); the
context for plural allomorphy is not fully accurate: it mentions that the
zero plural allomorph is used for multisyllabic words ending in -s, a
statement that should be qualified to include only multisyllabic words
that do not have stress on the last syllable (giving 'crisis' --> 'crisis'
but 'país' --> 'países')). However, only the latter might somewhat
obscure the discussion of acquisition data presented later (page 57).

Although the book is not presented as an introduction to the issues
discussed, a brief description of some of the tests and techniques
common to the field (such as the 'wug' test, p. 56-57), would have
made it more accessible to readers less familiar with acquisition

In the search for possible explanations of developmental effects in
child language and adult interlanguage, the role of frequency is only
very occasionally discussed, probably because the papers reviewed in
the book do not address the issue themselves. In turn, this might
reflect, on the one hand, the fact that in many cases there are no
frequency data available for the aspects under study, and, on the
other, that lexical and construction frequency effects have only quite
recently started to be considered seriously -and not incompatible with
UG-in psycholinguistic research within generative grammar (see, for
instance, Demuth et al. (2005) and citations therein). The book would
benefit, though, from an acknowledgement of the debate or an
indication of cases in which it might be valuable to test for correlations
between experimental results and frequency as a possible account of
developmental facts (something that the author does for other non-
linguistic factors).

Montrul's book brings together an impressive set of results from
different sources (several of which are not written in English),
generating a dialogue among studies that did not necessarily refer to
each other. Additionally, Montrul provides a review of observational
data from CHILDES to compensate for the lack of studies in the area
of child acquisition of argument structure alternations in Spanish (p.

Overall, Montrul's "The Acquisition of Spanish" is a valuable book for
anyone interested in theoretical and developmental issues of
acquisition in Spanish and other languages. For those interested
mostly in one of the fields (first, second language or bilingual
acquisition), it serves as an excellent window into the discussion of
parallel issues in the other related areas. This book can also be of
interest to theoretical linguists since data from acquisition, especially
when considered as carefully as in this book, broaden the empirical
base for the construction and evaluation of approaches to
morphosyntactic knowledge and representation.

Montrul 'warns' us that this is neither an introductory overview nor a
textbook, probably because of the previous knowledge it presupposes
and because it clearly assumes and argues for a particular approach.
However, I think her book would work as a fantastic reference and
source of data and discussion for acquisition courses in which
students have some previous knowledge of generative linguistics and
previous or supplemented knowledge of methodology in
psycholinguistic research.


Clahsen, H., T. Parodi and M. Penke (1993). Functional categories in
early child German. Language Acquisition 3: 395-429.

Demuth, K., M. Machobane, F. Moloi and C. Odato (2005). Learning
animacy hierarchy effects in Sesotho double object applicatives.
Language 81: 421-447.

Hyams, N. (1996). The underspecification of functional categories in
early grammar. In Generative Perspectives on Language Acquisition,
H. Clahsen (ed.), 91-128. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Penner, Z. and J. Weissenborn. (1996). Strong continuity, parameter
setting and the trigger hierarchy: On the acquisition of the DP in
Bernese Swiss German and High German. In Generative Perspectives
on Language Acquisition, ed. H. Clahsen, 161-200. Amsterdam: John

Pinker, S. (1984). Language Learnability and Language Development.
Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press.

Pinker, S. (1989). Learnability and Cognition. The Acquisition of
Argument Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Poeppel, D. and K. Wexler (1993). The full competence hypothesis of
clause structure in early German. Language 69: 1-33.

Radford, A. (1996). Towards a structure-building model of
acquisition. In Generative Perspectives on Language Acquisition, ed.
H. Clahsen, 43-90. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Schwartz, B. and R. Sprouse (1996). L2 cognitive states and the full
transfer/full access hypothesis. Second Language Research 12: 40-

White, L. (1989) Universal Grammar and Second Language
Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


María Cristina Cuervo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of
Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Toronto. Her research
interests include syntax and morphology at the level of
argument/event structure and their relation with semantics (with
particular focus on dative arguments, applicatives, objects, clitics and
the construction of verbal meanings), and the acquisition of
morphosyntax in Spanish as a first and second language.