LINGUIST List 21.2569

Fri Jun 11 2010

Review: Language Acquisition: Foster-Cohen (2009)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

        1.    Katherine Messenger, Language Acquisition

Message 1: Language Acquisition
Date: 11-Jun-2010
From: Katherine Messenger <>
Subject: Language Acquisition
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EDITOR: Susan Foster-Cohen TITLE: Language Acquisition SERIES TITLE: Palgrave Advances in Linguistics PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan YEAR: 2009

Katherine Messenger, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


'Language Acquisition' is an edited volume on language acquisition research in its broadest sense -- that is, it presents perspectives on the development of syntax, morphology, phonology and pragmatics, of comprehension and production, of spoken and manual language learning, and of first, second and bilingual language learners and learners with linguistic and physiological impairment. The aim of this wide-scoping presentation is not to introduce the novice to the background themes of this field but rather to inspire the advanced scholar of language development -- postgraduate and research students and potentially also advanced undergraduate students -- to continue work in this field. This book is intended to provide a snapshot of the state of the art in language acquisition research. As such, it should also be of interest to more experienced researchers seeking insights into other areas of language acquisition.

The volume consists of 13 papers in three sections: Explaining Language Acquisition; Windows on Language Acquisition; Language Acquisition Culture and Diversity. These are prefaced with an introduction by the editor, Susan Foster-Cohen, who gives an overview of language acquisition research, discussing the major themes and questions that have dominated and divided the field, as well as the variety of disciplines and associated approaches that have pursued language acquisition research. Foster-Cohen provides a refreshingly open-minded discussion of the strengths and weakness of approaches that sit on opposing sides of well-established divides. The introduction sets a multi-disciplinary tone and highlights some of the themes and ideas that connect the papers of the three subparts and occasionally that link papers across the whole collection.

The remainder of this review is divided into a brief description of the papers in the three sections, followed by a critical evaluation of the collection.

Part One: 'Explaining Language Acquisition' The first section consists of five papers, unified by such themes as the role of attention, input and interaction in language development, though they cover such seemingly disparate areas of research in first language acquisition as phonology and word learning (Vihman, Chapter 1), language segmentation (Peters, Chapter 2), the nature and role of child directed speech (Saxton, Chapter 3) and universal grammar (Guasti, Chapter 4) and also approaches to second language acquisition (Gass, Chapter 5). Upon reading, the overall theme seems to be how the language acquisition process begins and proceeds: the section presents a variety of theories on how children and second language learners decipher and make use of the input to which they are exposed to form their first words and word combinations and to make progress into and along the language development path.

Chapter 1, 'Word Learning and the Origins of Phonological Systems' by Vihman, examines the role of implicit learning mechanisms in the development of a first language. She presents a model of language development based on cycles of implicit and explicit learning phases. This model proposes that the child uses distributional analyses of the input to guide the identification and formation of first words, which, once acquired, can form the basis of further distributional analyses leading to the acquisition of a grammar.

In Chapter 2, 'Cracking the Language Code: Processing Strategies in First Language Acquisition', Peters proposes the idea of language development as a dynamic process of interaction between external influences (the input language, the social contexts of language, the desire to communicate) and internal factors (the child's physical, mental and cognitive development). She puts forward a theory of language development in which internal drives motivate the child to language learning through segmentation and pattern extraction.

Chapter 3, 'The Inevitability of Child Directed Speech' by Saxton provides the reader with an updated theory of the role and effects of child-directed speech (CDS) on first language acquisition. Saxton highlights the importance of the interactive nature of CDS, which he proposes can have an impact on language learning by providing negative feedback when children make production errors. Whilst he does not argue that such feedback is necessary for language development, he points out the facilitating effect that this pervasive type of interactive input may have.

Chapter 4 introduces the nativist approach to language acquisition: Guasti's chapter 'Universal Grammar Approaches to Language Acquisition' discusses the idea that the learner comes to the language acquisition task endowed with abstract knowledge of language -- a universal grammar -- that guides the learning process. She illustrates her argument with examples from generative linguistic theory of abstract rules that require knowledge of underlying syntactic structure. She also draws on evidence from deaf children learning sign language from non-native signers in a discussion of the idea of 'the poverty of the stimulus'.

The final chapter of Part 1, Chapter 5 on 'Second Language Acquisition', where Gass presents a thorough overview. She also discusses an 'interaction' approach to second language acquisition, invoking a number of concepts integral to acquisition: the importance of appropriately characterizing the 'input' the learner is exposed to; how 'interaction' between learner and native speaker can influence learning and the role that 'output' plays in promoting language development. A key theme is the role of attention: understanding the learner's perception of the learning environment.

Part Two: 'Windows on Language Acquisition' The second section focuses on the varied circumstances in which language acquisition takes place. It presents research on typical first (Chapters 7 and 8) and second language learners (Kuiper et al., Chapter 9) and learners acquiring language in unusual circumstances, such as deaf children or children with prenatal stroke or Williams Syndrome (Reilly, Chapter 6), as well as research on how the development of language relates to the development of emotion (Chapter 6) and thought, such as theory of mind (de Villiers and de Villiers, Chapter 7) and pragmatic processing (Pouscolous and Noveck, Chapter 8). Thus this part explores how research with populations other than typically-developing children can inform theories of language acquisition.

Chapter 6, 'Language and the Many Faces of Emotion' by Reilly, examines the relationship between developing language and developing expressions of emotion and the neural architecture underlying these behaviours. She shows how the developmental paths of these two behaviours interact, presenting evidence from children with prenatal stroke, from children acquiring sign language, in which facial expressions are used, for example, to signal questions and from typically-developing children and children with Williams Syndrome, examining the development of affective expression in story narration for both groups.

In Chapter 7, 'The Evolution of a Theory of Theory of Mind', de Villiers and de Villiers discuss the research that has shaped their theory that children's ability to understand other people's false beliefs hinges on a certain level of grammatical development being reached. They discuss the relationship between children's ability to understand complement clauses and verbs of communication and to respond correctly in certain false-belief tasks. They draw on evidence from typically-developing children of a variety of languages as well as children with delayed development.

Chapter 8, 'Going beyond Semantics: the Development of Pragmatic Enrichment' by Pouscolous and Noveck, presents research at a later stage of language development: the authors examine the development of pragmatic processing of logical terms such as 'or' and 'some' in five to nine-year old children. They suggest that the ability to draw pragmatically enriched inferences on the use of these terms emerges gradually, cross-linguistically, with children first making more literal interpretations. Although they also demonstrate that when other demands are reduced, younger children do show the ability to draw pragmatic inferences.

As in the first section, the final chapter is reserved for second language acquisition. Chapter 9, 'The Acquisition of Phrasal Vocabulary' by Kuiper, Columbus and Schmitt, explores second language learners use of formulaic language -- fixed, memorized chunks or phrases that are processed more efficiently than if generated creatively. Using cloze tests, the authors find that learners do not however appear to learn these formulaic phrases which could be useful to their second language learning.

Part Three: 'Language Acquisition Culture and Diversity' The final section contains four chapters exploring language acquisition and use in different cultural contexts through discussions of individual variation in bilingual language acquisition (Müller, Chapter 10), of cross-linguistic comparisons of discourse (Hickmann, Chapter 11), of children's development of story narration skills (Berman, Chapter 12) and finally of cross-cultural literacy development in the home (McNaughton et al., Chapter 13).

The first chapter of this section, Chapter 10: 'Language Development in Simultaneous Bilingual Children' by Müller, examines the language development of individual children acquiring two languages simultaneously with reference cross-linguistic influence and language dominance. She emphasizes the role of individual differences in development related to the subsystems of the particular languages being acquired and the strategies the individual child applies to their acquisition.

Chapter 11, 'Universals and Cross-Linguistic Variability in Children's Discourse' by Hickmann, discusses the influence of linguistic variation in the marking of discourse elements, such as reference to space, time and entities, on language acquisition. She examines evidence from children acquiring languages that denote these elements in very different ways, reaching the conclusion that observed similarities in the acquisition of diverse discourse marking types is evidence for domain-general cognitive development underpinning this acquisition.

Chapter 12, 'Trends in Research on Narrative Development' by Berman, continues the discussion on children's discourse skills with reference to the development of narrative discourse and storytelling. Berman's approach focuses on the relationship between children's acquisition of linguistic forms and the function of these forms in narration. She discusses research examining children's relatively prolonged development of narrative discourse features such as reference, temporality, evaluation and connectivity.

Chapter 13, 'Family Literacy Activities' by McNaughton, Amituanai-Toloa and Wolfgramm-Foliaki, explores family attitudes to literacy and changes in these ideas through a discussion of case-studies of reading activities within two minority communities in New Zealand. They examine the interaction between family reading practices and external agents, such as school literacy practices, with the ultimate goal of informing educational programmes for improving literacy.


Matters of style aside, in my opinion this book rises to the challenge of providing a broad overview of the field of language acquisition that will inform and inspire students and researchers alike. It certainly meets the aim of providing a wide-ranging collection of ideas that will motivate the reader to think and challenge existing theories. It draws together a varied range of research based on very different populations, techniques and a wide variety of languages. Many key ideas in language acquisition research are covered, such as the nature of the initial state, mechanisms for learning, the role of input and social factors, the influence of cognitive development. It is refreshingly unbiased in its choice of subjects, crossing the usual dividing lines typical of the field, and leaving the reader to decide which provides the most convincing account of language development. The book as a whole embodies a key point, that progress in the field relies on and therefore should embrace interactive and multi-disciplinary research.

Though the papers are targeted at the advanced student or researcher and as such assume a certain level of knowledge of linguistic and developmental terminology and concepts, most of the chapters are in fact written in a very accessible style and do provide broad overviews of their subject area which will give the reader a comprehensive understanding of the background of their topic. Most chapters present a discussion of the background literature on their subject, coverage of up-to-date research and provide suggestions for future research. Thus, the volume provides an interesting collection of research that should indeed inspire language acquisition students and researchers to new directions.

However, given the effort to cover such a broad scope of language acquisition research, readers may find that something of interest has not been covered -- of course, only so many topics can be covered in 13 chapters. Nonetheless as the goal was to provide a snapshot of developmental linguistics at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one might expect to see a chapter on research made possible by recent technological advances, such as within neuroscience -- particularly since Foster-Cohen hints at this direction in the introduction. Yet no papers discuss research based on neuroscientific methods (ERP, fMRI) nor are other recent methods of investigation represented, such as computer modeling of language development or methods of examining on-line language processing like eye-tracking.

Naturally for an edited collection of papers, the style and tone of each paper varies and I felt that some chapters were more successful (in particular the chapters by Saxton and by Gass) at presenting a clear and broad-minded overview of their subject than others. A nice feature of the collection is that the editor sometimes provides notes within chapters guiding the reader to other chapters of the volume that discuss the same subject matter; it's only a shame that, though this occurs quite frequently within the first part, it rarely occurs in later chapters.

A minor criticism of this book is purely editorial: chapter titles, sub-headings and author names are written all in lower case, an unattractive formatting choice that is fortunately not maintained throughout the text of the articles.

On the whole, I found this to be a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable collection which was for the most part well-written and accessible. It provides informative background to various disciplines within language acquisition as well as promoting ideas for future research.


Katherine Messenger is a post-doctoral research scholar in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include first language acquisition and the application of psycholinguistic methods to language acquisition research. Her research currently focuses on children's comprehension and production of passive structures through preferential-looking and syntactic priming studies.

Page Updated: 11-Jun-2010