Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.