LINGUIST List 13.55

Thu Jan 10 2002

Review: Steinberg et al, Psycholinguistics

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  • Belianine Valeri, Review of Steinberg Language, Mind and World, 2nd ed.

    Message 1: Review of Steinberg Language, Mind and World, 2nd ed.

    Date: Thu, 10 Jan 2002 14:46:18 -0400
    From: Belianine Valeri <>
    Subject: Review of Steinberg Language, Mind and World, 2nd ed.

    Steinberg, Danny D., Hiroshi Nagata, and David P. Aline, ed. (2001) Psycholinguistics: Language, Mind and World, 2nd ed. Longman paperback ISBN: 0-582-03949-5, xix + 444 pp, Longman Linguistics Library (first ed. 1982).

    Reviewer: Valery Belyanin, Moscow State University

    The book consists of 13 chapters presented in four parts. It has more than 650 references, an author index and a subject index.

    Part 1 is en titled "First-language Learning". Chapter one, called "How Children Learn Language," explains how children progress from vocalization to babbling and then move into uttering their first words. This is followed by speech stages such as naming (one-word sentences), holophrastic, telegraphic (two- and three-word utterances), and morphemic. Explanations of this order of acquisition are given. Then come such speech stages as negation, question, and passive formations. The description of the development of speech comprehension is discussed alongside questions like: can the sounds of speech reach the fetus while it is still in the uterus, or do infants prefer their native language at birth? Cases of comprehension without speech production (e.g. in mute- hearing child) are also topics that are discussed here. And certainly there is a description of the characteristics of parentese talk (caregiver speech, Adult-to-Child Language, child-Directed Speech), which is defined as the sort of speech that children encounter when they are young. Some differences between mother and father speech (though it is also called motherese speech) are described. Baby talk that involves the use of a very simplified and reduced vocabulary and syntax is said bear no harm to children. The role of imitation, rule, correction as well as memory and logic in language learning is also discussed. Furthermore, this chapter deals with the relationship of speech production, speech comprehension and thought.

    Chapter Two is entitled "The Deaf and Language: Sign, Oral, Written" and describes sign language as true language without speech. The gestures of hearing people reviewed as signs that do not form a language since they are limited and restricted to certain speech occasions. Sign languages differ from them because they are able to express through body movements exactly that which can be expressed through speech. Speech-based (involving finger spelling) and independent sign languages are described with photos and pictures. The process of learning American Sigh Language, which involved the oral approach, is criticized. A program for teaching written language to hearing-impaired children which has four phases (word familiarization, word identification, phrase and sentence identification, paragraphs and stories) is introduced and proof of its effectiveness is given.

    Chapter Three is entitled "Reading Principles and Teaching" and contains a lot of metaphors and funny examples, one of which illustrates the unpredictability of English orthography. Here are two of twenty five lines of a verse in which different combinations of letters that sound similar are given as examples: Well done. That sure was fun. But my friend, it's not the end. The authors support the whole-word approach to teaching (versus phonics/decoding) and advocate early reading for pre-school age children.

    The fourth chapter in this part is entitled "Wild and Isolated Children and the Critical Age Issue for Language Learning". It starts with legends about evil kings who deprived children of communication, and goes on with the stories of Victor (the wild boy of Aveyron), Genie (raised in isolation), Isabelle (confined with a mute mother), and Helen Keller (the renowned deaf and blind girl). The story of Chelsea (a tragic case of misdiagnosis) is added to this edition, unlike the book published in 1982. And the discussion of the problem of critical age for first-language acquisition takes several pages instead of several lines, as in the previous edition. The hypothesis is not formulated here explicitly though it is said that the critical age cannot be much younger than 6 or 7 years.

    Chapter five "Animals and Language learning" is devoted to people who have taught animals to use language. It deals with teaching speech to apes, chimpanzees, dolphins, and parrots. Some new animals appeared here in comparison with the earlier edition. Animal communication in the wild is described with more attention to bird calls and honey bees. The authors state that animal communication should not be viewed as language since it lacks creativity.

    Part Two of the book is entitled "Second-Language Learning". It starts with chapter six, entitled "Children and Adults in Second-Language Learning". Basic psychological factors affecting second-language learning (such as explication, memory, and motor skills) are examined. It is postulated that induction remains at a relatively high level with age (except with certain individuals of old age); the ability to understand explication increases with age while memory and motor skill decline with age. Social situations affecting second-language learning are named, such as the natural versus classroom situation and community context. The question "Who is better? Adults or children?" is not simple and the book answers that young and older children will do better than adults in the natural situation, and older children will do better than adults in the classroom. And even in the stimulation case the young children will do better than adults in the classroom. It is stated that there is no critical age in terms of acquiring the syntax of a second language and some adults may very well achieve native speaker pronunciation.

    Chapter seven is entitled "Second-Language Teaching Methods". It describes traditional methods, such as grammar-translation, natural, direct and audiolingual, and the methods that are called 'offbeat': Cognitive Code, Community Language Learning, Silent Way, and Suggestopedia, which are criticized in the book. Contemporary methods (Total Physical Response, Communication Language Teaching, Natural Approach) are also described in detail. This chapter ends with some research studies that compare the effectiveness of methods. Also, the phrase "No method is a total failure" is preceded by "It is safe to say that students will learn something from any method". A kind of recommendation is given to "those who can afford the luxury of selecting a method": "Most methods will have some features which can be of benefit to the language learner." The use of such an aphoristic language though has some reasons, since it follows rather detailed explications of the pros and cons of all the above methods. Nonetheless, Total Physical Response is given a most favorable evaluation. This part ends with chapter eight titled "Bilingualism, Cognition, Transfer and Learning Strategies".

    Part three is entitled "Language, Mind and Brain". It starts with chapter nine entitled "Language, thought and Culture" where four theories regarding the dependence of thought and culture on language are described. These are: speech is essential for thought (Watson, Skinner, Bloomfield and Liberman), language is essential for thought (Sapir, Whorf and Vygotsky), language determines our perception of nature (again Whorf, and again Sapir, plus Korzybsky), and language determines our cultural world view (again Sapir, again Korzybsky, plus Humboldt). Each theory is strongly criticized after the authors describe their essence. 'The Best Theory' is offered. Its several postulates are that thought is independent of language (John Locke) and that language can assist in conveying new ideas and culture (no names).

    Chapter ten is entitled "Where Does Language Knowledge Come From? Intelligence, Innate Language Ideas, Behaviour?" and deals with controversial approaches to the matter: mentalism as opposed to materialism, epiphenomenalism as opposed to mediationism, empirism as opposed to rationalism. This rather philosophical part of the book is followed by the quite well known Chomskyan arguments for innate language ideas, which are here judged inadequate.

    Chapter eleven "Language and the Brain" is a bit more biological. General brain structure and hemispheric dominance, where one hemisphere (more often the left one) is in control, are the main problems discussed here. Left- handers are said to have more speech disorders and various reading and writing dysfunctions due to the lack of strong dominance. The fact that the left hemisphere is the main language hemisphere for right handed people is proved by the example that listening behind a closed door is better by turning your right ear forward (which for me is a good exercise to demonstrate during the lecture in order to arouse the student's interest). Language disorders that fall into two basic groups (Broca's and Wernicke's aphasias) are also described here. New high-tech methods of brain and language investigation" are named (Computerized Axial Tomography, Positron Emission topography, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and Event-Related Potentials) are shortly but vividly described.

    Part four is entitled "Mental Grammar and Language Processing". It opens with chapter twelve "Language Criteria for Assessing Grammars" and focuses on a speaker's fundamental language abilities such as the ability to produce and comprehend sentences with no limits as to length, an unlimited number of sentences, novel sentences and grammatical sentences. Behaviorist, psychological and structural linguistic points of view are discussed and explained. And certainly, Chomskyan generative rule system dealing with the abilities to understand sentence synonymy and structural ambiguity is brought into view as well.

    The concluding chapter (No 13) is entitled "Natural grammar: A 'God's Truth' Grammar Based on the Primacy of Speech Comprehension." It starts with the controversy of linguistics' main goal: should grammar describe language in formal terms or describe what the speaker knows about the language? Since the title of the book contains both "Language" and "Mind" the authors try to find a compromise, but decidedly incline more towards psychological criteria for assessing grammars. A theory of Natural Grammar is proposed again. This grammar is derived from the prior development of thought with its ideas and propositional creations. It is this thought which is projected onto incoming speech with its attendant objects and events so that a grammar based on comprehension, a comprehension grammar, develops. Through this grammar incoming speech is able to be interpreted into thought. Speech production is regarded as a derived process based on speech comprehension. Thus, the theory of natural grammar comes out to be the interaction of mind and thought, with the experience of speech input and environmental situations and events that co-occur with that speech.


    As for me I would never agree that "Suggestopedia is little more than grammar-translation with music" (p.206). In fact it is much more. Then, too, a single mention of Vygotsky is not enough since his works contain many ideas similar to those of the authors. Another scholar, Alexander Luria, is even not mentioned. Furthermore, it is disappointing for me as a Russian that Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov is never referred to as a behaviorist. In addition, the review of strategies for second-language production would be more complete if the authors were to describe the modern theory of cognitive styles (Betty Leaver).


    The book is well organized and very readable. It provides many examples from within the contexts of languages other than English (such as Japanese Chinese, Korean). In general it combines the description of very specific cases of language defects (unfortunately less of giftedness) with rather sophisticated statements borrowed from philosophy. The authors put forward a lot of questions (even in the titles of the chapters) and the answers are sometimes indefinite since the problems brought up are extremely controversial and complicated. In short, the book, subtitled "Language, Mind and World" is well written, challenges the mind and brings to life new viewpoints of the world. In my eyes, this is true psycholinguistics.


    Leaver B. (1997). Teaching the Whole Class. Corwin Press.

    Luria A. (1972) A Neuropsychological Analysis of Speech Communication. // Prucha J. Soviet Studies in Language and Language Behavior. The Hague: Mouton, pp. 191-207.

    Steinberg, Danny D. (1982). Psycholinguistics: Language, Mind and World. Longman: London & New York.

    Steinberg, Danny D. (1993). An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. Longman: London & New York.

    Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    About the Reviewer: Valery Belyanin received his Ph.D. in psycholinguistics in 1985 at the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. He received his Dr.Sc. in 1983 also in psycholinguistics at Moscow State University. He is the author of three monographs on psychostylistics and five different editions of textbooks on psycholinguistics. He taught Russian as a second language for more than 20 years in Russia, Poland, Afghanistan, Cuba and Taiwan. He taught psycholinguistics and related subjects for more than ten years in Russia and Taiwan.