Review of An Introduction to Psycholinguistics
|AUTHORS: Steinberg, Danny D.; Sciarini, Natalia V.
TITLE: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (2nd edition)
PUBLISHER: Pearson Longman
Clare Wright, Department of Education, Communication and Language Sciences,
Newcastle University, United Kingdom
The second edition of this Introduction to the rapidly changing field of
psycholinguistics research is a timely update to the first edition
published in 1993. The book is aimed at a university level readership,
whether students or academics from a variety of fields, from psychology and
philosophy to second language teaching and speech pathology. The questions
raised by the book provide the foundation for a standard textbook on
language acquisition and cognition: how do children learn to speak and read
their native language, is language unique to humans, does language
influence culture, how does language work in the brain? Using case studies
and referring to a broad range of both well-established research and very
recent studies, the authors explore the debates that lie behind these
questions. Their stated aim is thus to allow a reader with ''no specific
knowledge of any topic … presupposed'' to reach the ''highest level of
understanding of the topics considered in an engaging way'' (page xiii).
There are three parts to the volume, first-language learning,
second-language learning, and language, mind and brain. Each part is
wide-ranging, and aims to cover the major questions of the field in line
with the goals set out above. These questions are often addressed
cross-linguistically, although the predominant focus is on American
research and English as the target language.
However, going beyond the remit of a standard introductory textbook, the
authors present their own views on the issues they discuss, in an often
personal and informal way, throughout the book, with particular emphasis on
a critique of the ''mystical aura'' (page 27) of generative Chomskyan
linguistics. The authors conclude the book with an outline, new to this
edition, of their own theory of grammar – ''Natural Grammar''.
Part One: First Language Learning
Chapter 1 covers how children first learn to produce and understand
language, referring to well-known early studies, such as Leopold (1953),
Klima & Bellugi (1966), Brown (1973), which described language acquisition
in children. The authors reiterate their own theory for the acquisition
order of consonants and vowels (first proposed in Steinberg 1982), based on
''visibility of articulators'' and ''ease of articulation'' (page 5); similarly
for morpheme acquisition, they suggest there are three variables based on
''universal and accepted'' (page 11) psychological learning principles,
namely ''ease of observability of referent, meaningfulness of referent and
distinctiveness of the sound signal that indicates the referent'' (page 13).
The authors suggest, for example, that the plural marker ''s'' in English is
learned before the third person ''s'', since person is more abstract, and
therefore less observable and less meaningful than number. Justification
for these principles is, however, rather unconvincing, with little
empirical evidence offered, although they appear to have some similarities
with Slobin's (1985) more widely known and researched Operating Principles
of language acquisition.
Chapter 2 describes the nature and acquisition of sign language, with
informative sections on the history of teaching deaf children, particularly
in the USA, and on the distinction between speech-based sign languages and
language-independent sign languages such as American Sign Language or
British Sign Language. The chapter seems, however, to have a primarily
sociolinguistic purpose in focusing on ''the problem'' (page 54) of how deaf
people can communicate with hearing people, and the lack of success (page
55) in teaching deaf children to read once they are at school. This is no
doubt a pressing question in certain quarters and the authors promote a
''Written Language Approach'' as a solution (based on the first author's
research in the 1980s, where reading English was successfully taught
simultaneously with sign language to pre-school deaf children). Evidence
of similar research in other languages would usefully strengthen the
psycholinguistic principles rather briefly alluded to in this approach.
The discussion of reading continues in Chapter 3, where some
cross-linguistic comparisons are made between sound-based systems
representing phonemes or syllables (such as most Western European
languages, Japanese, Korean) and meaning-based systems representing
morphemes such as Chinese. Much of the chapter is devoted to the so-called
''whole-word vs. phonics/decoding'' controversy within reading English with
the authors strongly on the side of the ''whole-word approach''. This
emphasis on the separation of reading from learning sounds of letters leads
to the main purpose of this chapter: to set out details of the first
author's Reading Programme briefly discussed in chapter 2, through which
children between the ages of 2 and 4 can be taught to read words and
sentences, although there is little theoretical analysis of the
psycholinguistic processes involved.
The concluding chapters in this first section return to more core
psycholinguistic issues: the notion of a ''critical period'' for language
acquisition, and whether language is uniquely human.
Chapter 4 examines cases of wild (or ''feral'') and isolated children,
examining how far children deprived of language may or not may not learn to
speak. The well known cases in the research literature are discussed,
including Helen Keller, and Genie, who was isolated until the age of 13, as
well as more recent cases such as Edik, found in the Ukraine in 1999, who
had been raised by dogs. The evidence from these cases for some kind of
critical period for language learning is assessed. The authors conclude
that any early exposure to some kind of language input, even for children
who do not hear (such as Helen Keller), is indeed critical to language
development. However, the clinical evidence is not discussed in depth, and
there is no evaluation of the psycholinguistic concepts and theories
involved in these cases – indeed the authors warn against drawing any firm
conclusions about theories of a specific critical age for language from so
few and so traumatised children.
Chapter 5, on animals and language learning, rounds off the first section
with a descriptive account of various well-known experiments to teach human
language to animals such as gorillas, chimpanzees or parrots. The authors'
conclusion, that animals ''have only a rudimentary language ability'' (page
118), follows the widely held view of language as a uniquely human
phenomenon (see a letter to LinguistList by Jackendoff et al. 2006).
The second part focuses on Second Language Learning; it adopts the
assumption that children are monolingual, and that a second language is
therefore an ''additional'' psycholinguistic burden, managed differently by
children and adults.
In Chapter 6, the authors divide factors involved in second language
acquisition into two categories: psychological and social, with suggestions
of how these factors might play different roles for children than for adults.
Psychological factors are simplified into three areas: intellectual
capacity, memory and motor skills. In intellectual terms, as the authors
see it, acquiring the grammar of a second language is seen as based either
on explication, to be taught in the learner's first language (page 124), or
on induction, or self-analysis. A learner's capacity to learn either
explicatively or inductively changes with age, with children under 7 least
likely to learn explicatively, in comparison to children over 7 or adults.
The authors conclude, however, that ''so long as the structures involved
are not far beyond the learner's level of syntactic understanding, there is
a good chance that the learner can discover the rules by self-analysis''
(page 125). The role of memory is briefly touched on, although with no
mention of the different models and theories of memory which are crucial to
this topic, such as Ullmann's (2006) model of procedural/declarative
memory, or Baddeley's (2003) model of Working Memory. Children's and
adults' differing motor skills are then considered, albeit briefly, for
their role in acquiring successful pronunciation, something which is often
harder for adults.
The authors then review some research on social factors suggesting that
motivation and attitude are both key to successful second language
learning, and whether classroom or natural learning provides a better
This, at times speculatively written, overview of what is a highly debated
field (Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2000) concludes that there is no
demonstrated critical age for second language learning, in either syntax,
or, more contentiously, in pronunciation.
Chapter 7, on second-language teaching methods deals with what could be
seen as an unusual choice of topic in most psycholinguistic textbooks, but
is justified by the authors as offering ''a chance to see how ideas of human
language and learning interconnect'' (page 138). The bulk of the chapter
provides a history of various teaching methods (such as
Grammar-Translation, Audio-Lingual, Communicative Language Teaching,
Computer-Assisted Language Learning). Some passing references are made to
the psycholinguistic theories of learning at the core of each method, but a
reader unfamiliar with the concepts involved would remain unclear why this
chapter is included. If the discussion were greatly summarised and
synthesised into the impact of learning strategies for bilingualism in
chapter 8, this would make for greater logical coherence and relevance.
Chapter 8 attempts to provide a stronger conceptual framework for the two
preceding descriptive chapters. However, as in the chapter on sign
language, the ultimate motivation for the chapter appears as much
socio-political as psycholinguistic, taking as the starting point the
''controversy''(page 161) whether learning a second language, particularly at
a young age, ''is a good idea'' or not. This question is then examined
through a brief history of attitudes to bilingualism, as well as research
into different case studies of bilingual children. The chapter concludes
with a brief overview of strategies for becoming a ''better second language
learner''. References to the research literature remain tantalisingly
brief, and with no mention of the ground-breaking psycholinguistic and
neurolinguistic research in this field since the 1990s (see for example
Part 3 returns to more core issues of psycholinguistic research, such as
language and the brain (chapter 12), but also extends the discussion to the
more philosophical debate over how language may affect or be affected by
culture (chapter 9). However the heart of this section lies in chapters 10
and 11, where the authors finally clarify many of their previous passing
criticisms of the innate or Chomskyan paradigm of language (Chapter 10) and
suggest instead a ''radical new theory of grammar'' – Natural Grammar
Chapter 9 sets out the traditional Whorfian debate over whether language is
shaped by culture, with helpful synopses of the research by Whorf in the
1930s and Bloom in the 1980s (amongst others cited) which led to certain
beliefs that language determines one's cultural or social beliefs, and that
constructs such as time, space and colour were not universal but shaped by
their expression in different languages. The authors provide philosophical
and empirical evidence from more recent research against these ideas,
concluding with the truism that language cannot precede thought, otherwise
multilingual people would have ''as many distinct world views'' as languages
Chapter 10 begins with a short discursive section on different types of
epistemology underpinning different views on language and language
development – behaviourism, led by philosophers and linguists such as Quine
and Skinner, rationalism (or ''Mentalism'' (page 200), led by Chomsky, Searle
and the authors themselves. This section, although a little confusing,
allows the authors to lead into their main focus: a critique of Chomskyan
innatism, or generativism, as expressed in three of Chomsky's most
influential works from the 1960s to the 1980s. The four main premises
addressed are ''Plato's problem'' or why children learn language despite
degenerate and meagre language input; the ease and speed of child language
acquisition; the modularity of language from other cognitive faculties; and
the principles and parameters model of linguistic competence. These areas
have been widely debated, and the authors cite perhaps the best known of
the debates, when Chomsky met with Piaget, Putnam and other notable
thinkers (Piatelli-Palmarini 1980).
There is a wealth of readily available evidence for and against Chomsky's
premises for the existence of a ''Universal Grammar'', and the authors'
objections overlap with counter-arguments made elsewhere (see, for example,
Pullum and Scholz 2002). ''Plato's problem'' of degenerate input may be less
extensive than originally thought, as the rise of corpus linguistics and
computational linguistics allows researchers to identify the frequency of
even complex syntactic structures in the input. However, the authors'
arguments against the other premises are based on claims, no longer made by
most generative theorists, that knowing the universal and formal rules of
syntax is equivalent to understanding how languages are learnt and used by
any given individual. The authors' objections to the notion of multiple
parameter settings, for example, are no longer germane.
In Chapter 11, the authors propose a ''new unique psychological conception''
– a theory of Natural Grammar (page 217). Having swept away Universal
Grammar as ''psychologically contradictory and invalid'' (page 221), the
authors also dismiss, with little in-depth analysis, non-generative
linguistic theories, such as Bates and MacWhinney's (1982) functional or
connectionist grammar. These theories are seen by the authors as
''inadequate'' (page 230), as they are too dependent on models based on
speech production. They fail, according to the authors, to capture the
''primary drive of language acquisition'' (page 232) – speech comprehension.
The authors propose that a child's mind ''is primed for comprehension'',
allowing the child to associate a sound with a lexical concept: the sound
''cat'' elicits the meaning ''cat'' by association with an experience of the
object -''or some representation'' of it (page 232). Syntactic rules to
infer arguments and predicates are similarly acquired through association
of known lexical concepts (''John'' ''give'', ''Tom'', ''the ball'') with an
experience when ''John gave Tom the ball''. Complexities underlying
negation, relative clauses, passives, are again learnt ''by the process of
guessing the meaning of the unknown speech constructions'' (page 235). The
child has, therefore, by the age of around 3 years, developed a ''ready
syntax'' or Comprehension Grammar (page 238).
Speech production, in turn, derives from the child developing production
strategies and functions, located within a ''Production Module''. The
Production Module interacts with the Comprehension Grammar to allow the
child to produce ''syntactically sound sentences'' (page 239). The final
element of this schema is a ''Central Thought Processor'', briefly outlined
as ''a primary pre-linguistic entity with prepositional formats, arguments
and predicates, as well as innate analysing processes'' (page 239). With
this schema, the authors confidently reject the pessimism expressed by
Jerry Fodor (1976) that a model of comprehension would take at least ''500
years'' to build (page 241).
I do not share the authors' confidence, not least since there is inadequate
foundation given here for an effective research agenda. No theoretical
justification or empirical evidence is provided on their generalisations
about the ''psychological operations'' (page 230) of the various elements of
this suggested schema. Nevertheless, I do share their commitment to the
need for theories that connect language comprehension, processing and
production. There is a range of interesting work increasingly being done
that crosses linguistic paradigms in this way, such as Truscott and
Sharwood Smith's (2004) Acquisition by Processing Theory.
The final chapter appears somewhat as an afterthought, providing a brief
overview, rather unconnected, of key neurolinguistic areas that play a
major role in understanding psycholinguistic research, such as the roles of
the hemispheres of the brain, language impairment such as Wernicke's and
Broca's aphasia, and developments in the methods of investigating brain and
language, such as Event-Related Potentials (ERPs). Greater explanation of
these important areas, and more central placing in the textbook, would
highlight the centrality of these topics to the psycholinguistic field.
To conclude, the book provides a lively and accessible introduction to both
mainstream and less central topics in psycholinguistics. The personal and
often informal tone in many of the sections should appeal to most students
new to the field. However, there are a number of limitations and omissions
that undermine the book's opening claim to ''bring the reader to the highest
understanding'' of the issues involved.
The structure and content throughout the book lacks the clarity and range
expected of a textbook introducing such a highly complex and ever changing
field (see in contrast Gleason and Ratner 1998, Obler and Gjerlow 1998, de
Bot et al. 2005). Furthermore, this second edition changes the order of
the chapters, and omits discussion points and suggested further reading for
each chapter, which gave the first edition greater cogency and
accessibility. Certain sections have been updated more than others (such
as the section on research into critical period limitations on second
language learning in Chapter 6), but overall, the text relies on research
predating the first edition, some of which no longer has high priority on
current research agendas (such as the critique of Chomsky which forms the
backbone of the book). Furthermore, several key contributions to
psycholinguistic research are noticeable for their absence, such as the
work of Slobin (1985) and Tomasello (e.g. 2000) in first language
development, and Pienemann's (1998) Processability Theory in second
In sum, this book serves less as an introduction to the field of
psycholinguistics, and more as a summary of Steinberg's important and
wide-ranging contributions to the field of first and second language
learning over the past 30 years. Provided the reader is aware of this
specific purpose, this book can be recommended to first year students or
other readers interested in the demands and fascination of psycholinguistic
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| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Clare Wright is in her second year of Ph.D. study at Newcastle University,
UK. Her research, funded by the Economic and Social Science Research
Council, is investigating the role of working memory in second language
acquisition for Chinese learners of English (supervised by Professor Vivian
Cook and Dr Martha Young-Scholten).