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Review of  How Children Learn Language

Reviewer: Joshua Viau
Book Title: How Children Learn Language
Book Author: William O'Grady Jean Aitchison
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 16.3449

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Date: Wed, 30 Nov 2005 10:30:23 -0600
From: Joshua Viau
Subject: How Children Learn Language

AUTHOR: O'Grady, William
TITLE: How Children Learn Language
SERIES: Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2005

Reviewed by Joshua Viau, Northwestern University Department of


As part of the ''Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics'' series, this book
gives a non-technical overview of its subject, language acquisition,
emphasizing breadth over depth of coverage. Each chapter focuses
on a specific ''component part'' of language (words, meanings,
sentences, sounds) and is meant to stand on its own, though the
chapters do naturally overlap to some degree. Two appendices
provide information on collecting diary and corpus material and
describing the sounds of English. The intended audience is ''scholars,
students, and parents who are not specialists in the field of language
acquisition research (p. 4).'' Readers are presented with a wide
variety of experimental findings from the 1950s to the present. Some
interpretation is given, but very few firm conclusions are drawn.
O'Grady remains largely neutral in terms of theory. A few hints at his
particular approach -- that core linguistic phenomena are best
understood in computational terms rather than being attributed to
autonomous grammatical principles, i.e. Universal Grammar (UG) --
are nevertheless discernible, particularly in the last chapter, ''How do
they do it?''


After a brief introduction, O'Grady begins with a chapter on word
learning (''The great word hunt'') in which he explores how children go
about segmenting words from the speech stream: using stress, for
example, and relying on certain strategies about meaning-bearing
elements. There's a section on learning inflection that highlights the
plural marker ''-s'' and the past tense marker ''-ed'' with additional
discussion of irregular nouns and verbs. As is true throughout the
book, the focus here is on what children typically do in naturalistic and
experimental settings and much less so on how or why they do it.
Another section deals with children's creativity in making new words
through conversion, derivation, and compounding.

The next chapter on word meaning (''What's the meaning of this?'') is
divided into halves, with a fair amount of attention devoted to nouns
and then a collection of very brief sections on learning verbs,
adjectives, prepositions, and pronouns. Concerning nouns, O'Grady
gives examples of over- and under-extensions and describes fast
mapping. An extended discussion then follows about possible
constraints that limit the possibility space for a given word's meaning.
These range from cognitive constraints to social, linguistic,
and ''organizational'' ones. Concerning verb learning, possible
regularities in the input related to aspect are mentioned, as are
syntactic bootstrapping and the difficulties involved with learning verbs
that describe mental states. Concerning adjectives, the section on
color terms touches on some crosslinguistic research, which is
refreshing considering that only English has been discussed up to this
point. However, the section on number words is overly thin and makes
no mention of important work by Spelke, Carey, and many others.

An aside about crosslinguistic evidence: it is sometimes unclear in
subsequent chapters whether generalizations are true only of English
or of all languages, e.g. Naoko Yoshinaga's work on wh-questions (p.
104) and other work on the vowel sounds that are acquired earliest
(p. 152).

Moving on, there's a chapter on syntax (''Words all in a row'') that
begins with results on children's early pattern-finding abilities and then
turns to ways of tracking syntactic development such as mean length
of utterance (MLU). Some of the subsequent discussion, for instance
on pivot words, (p. 86), will likely frustrate UG-friendly researchers
due to its emphasis on evidence for ''item-based'' learning and
induction of phrase structure rules. Mysteriously, the sections
on ''Missing big pieces'' and ''Missing small pieces'' largely ignore the
vast literature on null subjects and root infinitives in child language.
Other topics covered include negation, case in pronouns,
interrogatives, yes-no questions, and relative clauses.

Semantics is treated next (''What sentences mean''), with equal space
reserved for early one-word and two-word utterances and later, more
complex constructions. Concerning the former, readers will find useful
information about the intermodal preferential looking paradigm and its
usefulness in probing what children know about meaning.
Occasionally, the discussion lurches rather than flows, for instance
when O'Grady concludes that children interpret complete sentences
by forming ''little rules'' (subject precedes object for the verb ''bump'')
rather than applying a ''big rule'' (subject precedes object for all active
verbs) on the basis of one study's results. Later on, passives are a
main focus, as are control verbs like ''try,'' ''hope,'' ''tell,'' and ''promise,''
in addition to pronouns and quantifiers. It's worth mentioning that
O'Grady's best guesses for how control verbs and pronouns are
learned as presented in the book seem to dovetail with his own
economy-based view. For both, something like the Efficiency
Requirement -- ''Dependencies (lexical requirements) must be
resolved at the first opportunity'' (see O'Grady 2001, p. 3) -- is
invoked. The discussion of quantifiers focuses mainly on quantifier
spreading (Philip 1991) and would benefit from including the more
recent findings of Gualmini, Lidz, Musolino, and this reviewer, among

Sandwiched between the semantics chapter and the book's
conclusion, readers find a chapter on children's acquisition of prosody
and the sound system (''Talking the talk''). Considering that earlier
material -- including a discussion of the ''wug test'' for plurals (p. 20) --
depends on some knowledge of the English segmental inventory, and
also considering that other chapters follow a loose developmental
trajectory from children's first words to the grammar explosion and
beyond, perhaps this chapter would have been better placed at the
book's beginning. Regardless, its discussion of pre- and post-natal
speech perception and babbling is well-done and will no doubt
surprise and fascinate many parents and non-linguists.

The conclusion (''How do they do it?'') is perhaps the most successful
chapter in that O'Grady finally shifts here from description to
explanation, thereby fulfilling the promise implicit in the book's title. It
may be a little jarring to some readers who have been intrigued by
earlier discussions of frequency effects that the conclusion begins with
a great deal of evidence against the ideas that children imitate adults,
that adults teach children to talk, or that motherese is necessary for
language learning. O'Grady steps through various arguments, points
out helpful things parents can do, mentions evidence from twin studies
and language disorders that language is ''all in the head,'' and focuses
on the ''acquisition device,'' broadly construed. He then outlines and
gives supporting evidence for two dominant and conflicting views
about this device: that it's language-specific or, alternatively, domain-
general. The debate is left unresolved. The last section of the chapter
concentrates on language learning problems in general, including how
children deal with exceptions to generalizations.

Appendix 1 is on keeping a diary and making tape recordings. I
suspect that many readers will find it unnecessary to transcribe their
own recordings of child speech or calculate their child's MLU at
different stages of development, but they will have a good idea of how
to do so (if they'd like to) after reading the appendix.

Appendix 2 consists of a detailed diagram of the vocal tract
accompanied by consonant and vowel descriptions for most varieties
of North American English. The phonetic transcriptions for diphthongs
are missing in some cases (e.g. the diphthong in ''boy'') or non-
standard in others (e.g. [e] for the diphthong in ''they''), but this
shouldn't prove too distracting or misleading.


Language acquisition specialists will rediscover the occasional
forgotten gem of research while perusing O'Grady's ''How Children
Learn Language,'' as the author has read widely. However, it's difficult
to imagine which segments of the non-specialist target audience
would be pleased or well-served by this book alone. Scholars outside
the field of psycholinguistics might find it too breezy, not sufficiently
thorough in its coverage. It's true that there are notable gaps, some of
which are mentioned above, though in fairness this is an unavoidable
problem for surveys of massive bodies of research, especially surveys
as short as this (206 pages, excluding notes and references). Parents
would likely prefer Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek's (1999) ''How Babies
Talk'', which includes numerous exercises for parents under the
rubric ''Try this'' and a detailed summary of each chapter clearly
stating what has been learned. In addition, parents might be turned off
by the sheer number of endnotes salted throughout O'Grady's book.
These are cumbersome to navigate, as the reader must constantly flip
to the back of the book to see what work is being cited in the ''Notes''
section and then take the additional step of looking up each work's full
citation in the ''References'' section. I wouldn't blame any parent for
giving up after a chapter of such back-and-forth, but then the parent
would risk missing out on endnotes that are more than mere citations,
such as when O'Grady informs the reader that a quote has been
translated from African-American English to Standard American
English (p. 177). Finally, college-level students will perhaps want a
book with snappier prose like Pinker's (1994) ''The Language Instinct'',
and, more importantly, their professors may wish the book had a more
authoritative tone.

While the student reader of ''How Children Learn Language'' will come
away with a sense of wonder about children's impressive abilities in
this area and a reasonably good sense of how to test a language-
related research question empirically, she won't find guidance within
its pages on how to interpret the findings of a given experiment or how
to construct a good argument. Furthermore, she won't develop a
sense of what the stakes are in language acquisition, i.e. which
research questions matter most and which are being actively
investigated today in different theoretical frameworks. These problems
aside, the book is full of data that could easily be adapted for lesson
plans or problem sets. I see it as one of many possible texts on an
undergraduate reading list for an introductory course in linguistics or


Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. 1999. How
Babies Talk. NY: Dutton.

O'Grady, William. 2001. ''An emergentist approach to syntax.''
Unpublished ms. available online at

Pinker, Stephen. 1994. The Language Instinct. NY: William Morrow.

Joshua Viau is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Linguistics at
Northwestern University. His dissertation focuses on how children
learn the argument structure of their first language, with an emphasis
on verbs that describe possession transfer and/or goal-directed
motion. He has also worked extensively on quantification in child

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