LINGUIST List 20.2378

Fri Jul 03 2009

Review: Language Acquisition: Slabakova (2008)

Editor for this issue: Randall Eggert <>

        1.    Kevin McManus, Meaning in the Second Language

Message 1: Meaning in the Second Language
Date: 03-Jul-2009
From: Kevin McManus <>
Subject: Meaning in the Second Language
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AUTHOR: Slabakova, RoumyanaTITLE: Meaning in the Second LanguageSERIES: Studies on Language Acquisition [SOLA] 34PUBLISHER: Mouton de GruyterYEAR: 2008

Kevin McManus, School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University

INTRODUCTIONThe principal objective of this monograph is the proposal and explanation of anew transition theory for the acquisition of meaning: the Bottleneck Hypothesis.This aptly named theory considers the holdup in the acquisition of meaning to befunctional morphology. In an impressive review of existing transition theoriesand language acquisition research at the syntax-semantics interface, Slabakovaprovides a convincing account of how the acquisition of meaning is dependent onthe acquisition of functional morphology.

SUMMARYThis monograph begins by exploring the critical period hypothesis throughcomparisons between child language acquisition and adult second languageacquisition. Biological explanations for the critical period are discussed,leading to the proposal that there may be multiple critical periods. Claims onthe nature of critical periods arise from assumptions on the architecture of thelanguage faculty. Slabakova discusses two mainstream conceptions of the languagefaculty: Chomsky's (1995) Minimalist Program and Jackendoff's (2002) ParallelArchitecture. This necessary discussion situates the study in currentgrammatical theory and provides a springboard into discussion on existinglanguage acquisition theories. However, not before an insightful look atpsycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research on language acquisition.

The Bottleneck Hypothesis is proposed on a review of current transitiontheories, which are considered to either ''suffer from being untestable proposalsof how things might look in the L2 acquisition process'' (p.118) or, whileperhaps testable, they do not support ''recent research on the L2 acquisition ofsemantics'' (ibid). The Bottleneck Hypothesis seeks to obviate such shortcomingsand is centered on the acquisition of functional morphology: ''functionalmorphology is the bottleneck, syntax and semantics flow smoothly'' (p.100). ForSlabakova, syntax and semantics 'flow', meaning that knowledge of syntax andsemantics emerge before full suppliance of functional morphology, a view whichcan be dubbed semantics-before-morphology. Morphology is difficult for a numberof reasons, but most importantly due to mapping: functional meanings can berepresented differently in different languages. The task for the learner is towork out how functional meanings are represented in the second language.

Slabakova reviews an impressive amount of empirical evidence which lends supportto the Bottleneck Hypothesis. Firstly, data from simple syntax-complex semanticsare reviewed, the bulk of which deal with aspect. Then, ten studies from complexsyntax-simple semantics are reviewed; for example on quantification, scrambling,wh-movement. These data give rise to two main conclusions with regard tosyntax-semantics mismatches: (1) mapping semantics to new inflectionalmorphology and other grammatical morphemes slows down acquisition; and (2)syntax is fully acquirable: ''in no case is syntax an impenetrable barrier tofull achievement'' (p.260). Slabakova sees functional morphology as a bottleneckbecause ''it never presents complete closure to learning the syntax-semanticsmismatches'' (p.192-3). In sum, the ''acquisition of inflectional morphology, andmore specifically their syntactic and semantic feature information, is anecessary and sufficient condition for the acquisition of meaning'' (p.267).

This monograph deals with concept-to-form mapping at the syntax-semanticsinterface, where the expression of semantics differs between the learner's firstlanguage and the second language. In the case of aspect, this can involveinflectional morphology, depending on the language: the same semantics areexpressed in different ways.

EVALUATIONThe valuable contribution of this monograph to the acquisition of meaning in asecond language is timely after initial experimental studies have probed bothcomplex semantics (e.g. Montrul and Slabakova, 2003) and simple semantics (e.g.Dekydtspotter, 2001). Slabakova's critical review and proposal of the BottleneckHypothesis will allow researchers to take stock of current developments in thefield. This is a valuable contribution to the field of language acquisition andwill be of significant interest to researchers and graduate students.

REFERENCESChomsky, N. (1995). _The Minimalist Program_. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dekydtspotter, L. (2001). ''The Universal Parser and interlanguage:Domain-specific mental organization in the comprehension of combieninterrogatives in English-French interlanguage''. _Second Language Research_,17:91-143.

Jackendoff, R. (2002). _Foundations of Language_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Montrul, S. and Slabakova, R. (2003). ''Competence similarities between nativeand near-native speakers: An investigation of the preterite/imperfect contrastin Spanish''. _Studies in Second Language Acquisition_, 25:351-398.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERKevin McManus is a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages, NewcastleUniversity. His PhD is a cross-linguistic investigation into the second languageacquisition of aspect: ''The Development of Aspect in a Second Language: MappingForm-to-Concept'' (Supervised by: Prof. Florence Myles and Dr. RichardWaltereit). His research interests include: semantics, language acquisition, andthe philosophy of language.