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Review of  First Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Leah R. Paltiel-Gedalyovich
Book Title: First Language Acquisition
Book Author: Eve V. Clark
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 21.1094

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AUTHOR: Clark, Eve V.
TITLE: First Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2009

Leah R. Paltiel-Gedalyovich, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel


Clark's revised edition of ''Language acquisition'' is designed as an introductory
textbook for students of first language acquisition. In an introductory chapter,
Clark raises the general issues and questions related to the study of first
language acquisition, illustrating her discussion with examples from a variety
of languages. She explicitly states her orientation, namely language in use; the
influence of environment and specifically linguistic input on language
development. The book is then divided into four sections: Getting started,
Constructions and meanings, Using language, and Processing in acquisition. There
is an extensive glossary and name and subject indices follow the reference section.

Part I, 'Getting started', deals with the very beginning of children's language.
It includes five chapters. The first, ''In conversation with children'' presents
the central role of communication in language development. Context plays a
critical role, as do conventions of language meaning and the principle of
contrastive forms representing contrastive meanings. Children's language input,
'child-directed speech' is described as relatively complete and error free,
designed both in terms of linguistic, communicative and acoustic properties to
promote successful learning; a good quality stimulus for infants and children.
The argument against an innate language acquisition mechanism begins in this
chapter and is continued throughout the text. Clark points out that Social
Economic Status and social group affects the interaction of parents with
children and ultimately the pattern of language development.

Chapter 3, ''Starting on language: Perception'', deals with how children analyze
the speech stream in order to enter the conversation. Children have to learn how
to segment the speech stream into linguistically useful units, how to deal with
the variance of the acoustic signal, and how to work out which sounds and sound
patterns are significant for their language. The critical role of the auditory
system in determining the human (and animal) abilities to discriminate speech
sounds is emphasized. The interaction of child-directed speech and acoustic
abilities leads to successful perception of speech units.

Chapter 4 is ''Early words''. Once children have learned how to handle the speech
stream, they must learn how to map adult words onto meanings and express their
own meanings. Clark points out the individual variability in early language
development and the range of ages for first words and early vocabulary
milestones. Word production is influenced by recognition of the symbolic nature
of language, but articulatory motor skills are critical. Comprehension of
vocabulary generally exceeds production. Memory plays a role in both.
Children's initial hypotheses of word meanings are based both on conceptual
knowledge and social knowledge. Different strategies used by children, such as
overextension are discussed.

Chapter 5 is entitled ''Sounds in words: Production''. Producing first words
involves a transition from babbling to making more and more consistent, and more
and more adultlike approximations of target words. This chapter includes a
summary of different processes children use to simplify production. Ease of
articulation plays a major role in the patterns children use, but here too there
is great individual difference. There is an interaction between children's
vocabulary development and articulatory precision. Practice also plays an
important role. Sometimes this practice which occurs in non-communicative
speech, reflects a meta-linguistic awareness of their own articulatory
abilities. The distinction between new and given information begins to play a role.

The final chapter of the first section of the book, chapter 6, is entitled
''Words and meanings''. The orientation is again communicative. Children acquire
new meanings by taking part in communicative interchanges where speakers'
intentions and context make primary contributions. Conceptual and social factors
play important roles. It has been argued that children are endowed with
constraints that guide the acquisition of word meaning. Instead, Clark argues
for the importance of social context in learning meaning. The central role of
pragmatics in meaning acquisition is concentrated in two principles:
conventionality and contrast. Children propose a hypothesis about word meaning
and modify this hypothesis based on adult feedback and adult usage.

Part II 'Constructions and meaning', includes 5 chapters. This section deals
with how children expand their ability to express meanings. The section begins
with chapter 7, ''First combinations, first constructions''. Children learn to use
the specific constructions of their language to express particular meanings.
Previous trends such as the influence of articulatory dexterity on utterance
length and complexity are apparent here as well. In this chapter, Clark
emphasizes the role of research in investigating children's first utterances.
This includes the examination of early processes and the subsequent deeper
examination of possible causes/explanations for the processes observed. Early
studies described types of multi-word utterances and the distribution of word
types. Later studies put greater emphasis on communicative intent; from their
first utterances, children choose to express new information. Children's
knowledge of grammatical categories only becomes recognizable once they use
morphology. Three stages can be identified: frozen forms, intermediate forms and
constructed forms, as children move from restricted use of lexical items in a
single combination to productive use of items in multiple combination types.

Chapter 8 is ''Modulated word meanings''. Different languages expand the
information included in single words through a variety of inflectional
mechanisms. There is individual difference between children and variability in
the patterns of acquisition across languages. Using inflections requires
knowledge of inflectional meaning, rules of placement and which inflections
belong to which word classes. Semantic bootstrapping helps recognize syntactic
classes; syntactic bootstrapping helps derive meanings from unfamiliar words
having familiar forms. The role of input, including frequency of morphological
forms is seen as central to acquisition. Innate theories are consistent with
syntactic bootstrapping. Semantic bootstrapping does not posit innate linguistic
abilities. Word classes are the result of conceptual categories combined with
exposure to adult morphology and syntax. Computer models support the acquisition
of word classes from exposure to child-directed speech. Data is brought
supporting early child inflections as the result of schemas - not rules. Rules
rely on attending to the input and adding inflection. Schemas rely on attending
to the output and judging whether the schema is met or the output must be
adjusted to meet the schema.

Chapter 9 is ''Adding complexity within clauses''. Added complexity includes
adding discourse information about the relationship between the child's
communication and the discourse as well as adding precision. This chapter
returns to the issue of given and new information, and how these are coded in
different languages. Commonly investigated phenomena like children's early
subject omission are explained in terms of a combination of discourse,
performance, typological and phonological factors. These data provide evidence
against a grammatical, parameter setting account. Clark argues against innate
preferences for certain argument patterns being linked to certain grammatical
relations. Children gradually acquire constructive alternations which reflect
differences in the speakers' perspective. They learn to contrast on the basis of
semantic information primarily.

Chapter 10 is ''Combining clauses: More complex constructions''. In the previous
chapter increasing complexity by increasing the complexity of clauses was
discussed. In this chapter, increasing complexity by linking clauses is added.
The increased complexity serves a communicative purpose of allowing increased
precision of referents, time or space. More complex clausal combinations improve
the flow of information, more complex relations and events can be expressed, and
increase the range (and subtlety) of communicative purposes. The development of
relative clauses, complement constructions, temporal constructions, clausal
constructions, and conditionals is described. Language typology influences the
age and error patterns of acquisition. General patterns across languages which
are suggested, e.g., a preference not to break linguistic units in embedding,
reflect general performance strategies which are independent of the linguistic
analysis of the target construction.

Chapter 11, ''Constructing words'', takes a different direction, honing in at the
word level. Increased vocabulary promotes increased analysis of words to allow
subsequent synthesis of word parts into new words by processes of compounding
and derivation. Children's mastery of compounding and derivation is influenced
by the frequency of their exposure to the word roots and affixes. Children's
strategies for analysis of compound words reflect their language typology. Clark
shows this by comparing similar processes in very different languages. Different
strategies (or rules) may be used for comprehension and production. Transparency
and simplicity guide word coinage. The frequency of choice of affixes/paradigms
reflects adult usages. Deixis and word-coinage are two strategies used by
children to overcome the gaps in their vocabularies.

Part III of the volume deals with 'Using Language'. This section consists of
three chapters. The first is ''Honing conversational skills''. Clark lists four
rules for successful conversation: joint attention, consideration of hearer
knowledge, choosing speech acts appropriate for proposed meanings, and
turn-taking. Each of these is discussed in this chapter. Four stages in setting
up a conversation are described which result in joint attention (the common
ground) and the addition of new information regarding the object of this
attention. Part of the adult role is to provide scaffolding for the child's
contributions. Various functions of repetition are enumerated. Two primary
functions are acceptance of adult terms and experimentation with new terms.
There are communicative as well as acquisitional functions of repetition, for
children and adults. Part of learning to communicate involves learning to
express a variety of speech acts. A further skill children develop is the
ability to recognize communication breakdown and make repairs (as speakers) and
accept repairs offered by others (as hearers).

The second chapter in this section, chapter 13 is ''Doing things with language''.
Part of what children learn to do with language is to establish social roles and
different registers for themselves and interpret such roles in others. Children
learn how and when to be polite. These different roles and registers have
expression in all aspects of language: morpho-syntax, vocabulary, phonology and
prosody. Part of role learning includes learning the speech and language
behaviors consistent with each gender. They also learn an increasing number of
speech acts, including the knowledge that a single form can serve multiple
functions and a single function can be achieved with multiple forms. Some types
of pragmatic knowledge develop through childhood and adolescence while other
types reach adultlike levels in childhood. In some cases they are less adept as
in the case of using pronouns or choosing definite (for given information)
versus indefinite (for new information) articles. Children's knowledge of scalar
implicatures is briefly discussed.

School discourse breaks most of the regular rules of language for communication.
This may often result in inaccurate evaluation of children's knowledge.

The final chapter of this section is chapter 14 ''Two languages at a time''. The
social aspect of bilingualism (or bi-dialecticism) is emphasized. The majority
of the world is bi (or multi-) lingual. The degree to which speakers of more
than one language are proficient in each language varies greatly. There is no
clear picture yet of how these speakers process each of the languages. From the
babbling stage, children appear to be acquiring two distinct language systems.
Social factors and exposure are critical factors in acquisition of multiple
languages as for single language. Speakers learn to think in a way which is
expressible in their chosen language.

The final part of the book, 'Process in acquisition', includes two chapters. The
first is chapter 15, ''Specialization for language''. This chapter discusses
issues of brain specialization for language skills, sensitive periods for
language acquisition, and possible language-specific innate mechanisms.

Three questions were asked in the chapter: (1) Is there specialization for
language? A relatively positive answer to this question is given based on
neuro-imaging techniques (briefly presented) and early lesion studies, while the
role of the right hemisphere in cases of visual systems such as sign languages
is noted. (2) Is there a critical period for language acquisition? The answer
here is unclear. Time invested in language learning favors younger kids but
learning abilities favor older kids. Studies of feral children or children who
lacked stimulation in early childhood have been used to argue for a 'critical
period' for language acquisition. Clark uses these studies, as well as studies
of second language learning, to argue an opposing view, namely that without
appropriate social, emotional (and communication) input, children do not develop
language. (3) Is there an innate language acquisition device? Here the answer
is probably positive but with the qualification that this device is not specific
to language. An explicit argument against the Chomskyan hypothesis of innate
language (and its variations) is presented. Clark suggests that the debate
should not be about innate or learned language structures but about innate or
acquired language learning mechanisms. The data from impaired populations as a
support for the modularity of language is challenged. Particularly, the study of
impairment as a basis for learning about normative development is criticized.

The final chapter of this section and of the book is ''Acquisition and change''.
The first perspective is continuity of child language functions in acquiring
language. There is great individual variation, not only in developmental
patterns but also in the proficiency eventually reached. The stages of
acquisition are reviewed, reiterating arguments and references already presented
in previous chapters. The relationship between comprehension and production in
acquisition patterns is expanded. The central guiding principle of communication
(meaning and function) is seen as the ultimate guide for language acquisition
(rather than structure).

Clark argues that the poverty of the stimulus argument is simply wrong - the
stimulus is rich and provides an adequate model for language acquisition.


In her revised text, Clark takes a clear theoretical orientation, one that sees
communication and environment as central to the language acquisition process.
Throughout the description and explanation of language acquisition from the
early stages, the data brought is interpreted in terms of support for this view,
although a direct theoretical argument is presented most clearly only in the
final section.

The text covers a vast amount of material in terms of the detail of the research
brought and the breadth of the description of early language acquisition. The
style is clear, although I found the use of linguistic terminology inconsistent.
The glossary aids this situation but at times this impeded the ease of reading
the text.

Each chapter includes tables which summarize the content or list illustrative
examples. A short summary of each chapter also aids in organizing the main
points for the reader. Still I found the summaries uneven in terms of their
detail, with some chapters summarized in greater detail than others.

The nature of the text involves frequent references to issues and phenomena
discussed in other chapters. The same phenomenon may appear in several chapters,
each time brought to illustrate a different point. At times I found this
repetitive. Furthermore, cross-references in the text are inconsistent, where in
some instances the exact reference in other chapters is given, while in others,
there is no explicit reference to where the phenomenon is discussed in another
part of the book.

In general, I found this text a readable and comprehensive text on language
acquisition. The use of research reports, examples integrated in the theoretical
argumentation, provides a strong basis for further study in language acquisition.

Leah R. Paltiel-Gedalyovich is a practicing speech-language pathologist who combines clinical work with research into clinical applications of theoretical linguistics, particularly the semantic-pragmatic interface in first (Hebrew) language acquisition, developmental language assessment and issues in clinical phonology.

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Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521514134
ISBN-13: 9780521514132
Prices: U.K. £ 70.00

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 052173293X
ISBN-13: 9780521732932
Prices: U.S. $ 42.99