LINGUIST List 22.2867

Tue Jul 12 2011

Review: Applied Ling; Language Acquisition: Blom & Unsworth (2010)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

        1.     Lyn Shan Tieu , Experimental Methods in Language Acquisition Research

Message 1: Experimental Methods in Language Acquisition Research
Date: 12-Jul-2011
From: Lyn Shan Tieu <>
Subject: Experimental Methods in Language Acquisition Research
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at
EDITORS: Blom, Elma and Unsworth, SharonTITLE: Experimental Methods in Language Acquisition ResearchSERIES TITLE: Language Learning & Language Teaching 27PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2010

Lyn Shan Tieu, Department of Linguistics, University of Connecticut


This book aims to provide detailed, current information on methods in languageacquisition research, covering methods relevant for research on first andchild/adult second language acquisition, as well as acquisition bylanguage-impaired children; additionally, it addresses both spoken and signlanguage acquisition. The volume is intended for anyone with an interest inexperimental work on language acquisition, from undergraduate students to moresenior researchers looking for information on specific techniques and methods.The volume begins with a detailed introduction that outlines the goals andstructure of the book, summarizes each chapter, and offers a collection ofpractical tips for researchers who are about to embark on experimental work. Themain content of the book is divided into two sections: Chapters 1-9 addressspecific experimental methods, while Chapters 10-13 address comparative workacross groups. For each method covered, the author(s) provide(s) an introductionto the method, the underlying rationale behind the task, the linguisticvariables that can be examined using the method, the subjects for which the taskis appropriate, a description of the procedure, and appropriate analyses andpossible outcomes for the method. Each chapter concludes with a list of ''do'sand don'ts'' for the reader who is considering making use of the relevant method.

In Chapter 1, Sonja Eisenbeiss discusses three methods for collecting speechproduction data: naturalistic studies, semi-structured speech elicitation, andproduction experiments. Naturalistic studies involving minimal researcherinterference are highly versatile and more closely approximate naturallyoccurring conditions. Semi-structured elicitation techniques (such as the use ofgames or pictures designed to encourage the production of particularconstructions) are useful for studying low-frequency phenomena, fine-grainedsemantic distinctions, or the productivity of learners' utterances. Productionexperiments use methods such as elicited imitation, speeded production, andsyntactic priming; these allow researchers to systematically manipulatevariables of interest. Eisenbeiss ultimately suggests that the researcher oughtto provide converging evidence from these three methods.

In Chapter 2, Cristina Schmitt and Karen Miller address three methods used tocollect off-line (as opposed to online or real-time) comprehension data. Thetruth value judgment task involves testing subjects' ability to matchinterpretations of target sentences to carefully controlled scenarios presentedvia stories enacted with toys, video clips, or pictures. The authors discuss theimportance of controlling factors that might influence how a subject responds tothe test items (e.g. including carefully chosen control and filler items). Thepicture matching task involves having the subject choose the picture that bestmatches the target sentence or phrase. Variations on the task can differ interms of the number of pictures presented, as well as whether all pictures areinitially visible to the subject. The act-out task involves presenting sentencesthat the subject is asked to act out; this task is the most open-ended of thethree off-line tasks, lacking the forced choice component. The authors offer anoverview of insights from previous studies that have made use of these threemethodologies.

In Chapter 3, Antonella Sorace discusses magnitude estimation as a method forcollecting off-line judgment data. In the magnitude estimation task,participants are presented with a modulus stimulus exemplifying a particulardimension, and asked to express the magnitude of the characteristic with anumber. A series of stimuli are then presented, which vary in intensity;participants must assign each of these a number relative to the standardstimulus. Sorace discusses the advantages of magnitude estimation over moreconventional methods of collecting acceptability judgments, perhaps the mostnotable of which is that the method is more sensitive to gradient judgments,since participants are free to use whatever values they wish to rate a giventest sentence against the modulus. Sorace also discusses treatment of datacollected via magnitude estimation, including the need for normalization beforestatistical analysis. A noted advantage is that the data yield interval scales,and can thus be subject to a full range of parametric statistics.

In Chapter 4, Elizabeth Johnson and Tania Zamuner address three techniques thattest the receptive language abilities of young children. The visual fixationprocedure involves habituating participants (typically between 4 and 20 monthsof age) to audio-visual stimulus pairings; looking times to test trials can thenreveal infants' ability to discriminate between old and new sound or word-objectpairings. The headturn preference procedure relies on the observation thatinfants (six to nine months of age) typically listen longer to grammatical (orfrequent) than ungrammatical (or infrequent) constructions. The preferentiallooking procedure is a versatile paradigm in which children's visual fixationsin response to visual stimuli are recorded. Included among the detaileddescriptions of the methods are figures depicting idealized data sets.

In Chapter 5, Judith Rispens and Evelien Krikhaar discuss the use ofevent-related potentials (ERP) in language acquisition research. The ERPmethodology allows researchers to observe brain responses to language stimuli(i.e. voltage fluctuations in the brain's electrical activity that correspond tothe processing of linguistic stimuli). The authors offer a detailed overview ofstudies that have made use of ERP to investigate auditory, semantic, andsyntactic processing. Compared to other neuro-imaging techniques, the ERPmethodology is child-friendly, non-invasive, less expensive to carry out, andnot highly demanding on participants. The authors also note certain challengesof the method, particularly when testing very young children, but offer helpfulsuggestions to circumvent or minimize these challenges.

In Chapter 6, Julie Sedivy addresses the eyetracking technique, which involvescontinuous monitoring of subjects' eye movements (or saccades), which areassumed to reflect shifts of attention in response to linguistic stimuli. Sedivyprovides an overview of areas of research that have made use of eyetracking,such as spoken word recognition and syntactic ambiguity resolution. The methodis adaptable for use with almost any subject with normal vision and hearing, butchallenges arise when using the method with infants and young children. Sedivyoffers a discussion of the development of appropriate stimuli for differentpopulations (adult vs. child, monolingual vs. bilingual), the different kinds ofequipment one might use, and also a number of relevant measures of eye movementdata (e.g. latencies for first fixation, number of fixations over the course ofa trial, total fixation time, etc.).

In Chapter 7, Theodoros Marinis addresses on-line processing methods, whichmeasure participants' automatic responses to language stimuli as they arepresented. In a word-monitoring task, participants hear a word and then listento sentences, pressing a button if they hear the earlier word; this method isoften used to investigate sensitivity to ungrammaticality. In a self-pacedreading/listening task, participants read or listen to sentences word-by-word bypressing a button; this method is used to investigate phenomena such asprocessing of temporarily ambiguous sentences. Cross-modal priming involvesaural presentation of a sentence, after which participants must, upon seeing aword or picture, respond by pressing a button as fast as possible; this methodhas been useful for investigating structures involving dependencies between twoconstituents. The fourth method combines self-paced listening and pictureverification; participants see a picture on a computer screen, listen to asentence word-by-word by pressing a button, and then indicate whether thesentence matches the picture. This method has been used to investigate phenomenasuch as the processing of English active and passive sentences. Marinis alsodiscusses the advantages and disadvantages of exploiting on-line measures oflanguage comprehension.

In Chapter 8, Lisa Pearl discusses the use of computational models to simulatethe language acquisition process; such computational modeling can beparticularly useful in cases where the data being modeled are difficult toobtain experimentally. Pearl discusses the kinds of questions that can beaddressed through modeling, as well as parameters of evaluating the model'scontribution to language acquisition (for example, a formally sufficient model''learns what it is supposed to when it is supposed to from the data it issupposed to'' (p. 166)). Pearl provides examples of acquisition problems thatmodeling has been applied to, such as phoneme identification and morphologicallearning. She also discusses some crucial components of model designing, such asempirical grounding of the model (ensuring the model incorporatespsychologically plausible algorithms), and deciding which variables or''parameters'' to focus on (and which to abstract away from).

In Chapter 9, Jan Hulstijn discusses measures of language proficiency in thecontext of second language acquisition research. Hulstijn introduces some keypsychometric concepts (validity, reliability, discrete point tests vs.integrative tests, direct vs. indirect testing), and addresses four types oflanguage proficiency tests. Vocabulary tests can address the number of wordsthat speakers know as well as how well they know them; these tests can varyalong certain dimensions (e.g. whether they measure receptive or productiveknowledge). Sentence imitation involves having the participant repeat stimulussentences orally, and in particular measures proficiency in segmenting andparsing spoken sentences. The cloze test involves presenting a text thatcontains words that have been replaced with gaps; the participant must then fillin these gaps. Elicited production methods involve eliciting speech fromparticipants. The chapter also includes an example of how to measure proficiencyin a second language acquisition study.

In Chapter 10, Sharon Unsworth and Elma Blom address the comparison betweenchild second language learners, adult second language learners, and child firstlanguage learners. The authors begin by discussing how to make the distinctionbetween first and second language child learners, as well as second languageadult learners. The task of defining the groups of interest is clouded by thenumerous definitions that exist in the literature; for example, variousdefinitions of child second language acquisition have been proposed, revolvingaround varying ages from some time after birth to puberty. The authors stressthe importance of conservative and consistently applied criteria, which must bechosen based on the goal of the research. The authors then discuss in turnmaturational effects, transfer effects, input effects, and provide a discussionof some methodological issues relevant to comparing different groups of learners(e.g. determining age of first exposure, controlling for cognitive developmentand/or proficiency, controlling for quantity and quality of input).

In Chapter 11, Johanne Paradis discusses how to make comparisons betweentypically developing child learners and children with specific languageimpairment (SLI), looking at both monolinguals and bilinguals. The bulk of thechapter is devoted to a discussion of various methodological issues, such asconsiderations for comparing population groups (for example, how to match groupsand control for variation so as to best investigate the relevant between-groupdifferences in the target variable). She also discusses how to create athree-group matched design study, and how to calculate mean length of utterance(MLU) for the purposes of language-level matching. Finally, Paradis discussescomparison studies of bilingual children and children with SLI, including someimportant considerations that arise when bilingual children are included in acomparison study (e.g. whether the children are simultaneous or sequentialbilinguals, consideration of possible cross-linguistic transfer and code-mixing,etc.).

In Chapter 12, Anne Baker and Beppie van den Bogaerde offer a discussion of howto compare deaf learners with other groups. They begin by introducing sometheoretical issues that arise in sign language acquisition research; forexample, input conditions can vary depending on whether deaf children are bornto hearing or deaf parents, whether they receive signed input, and whether thisinput comes from native signers. The authors also discuss applied issues, suchas the development of policies for family guidance programs, and the effects ofcochlear implantation on the development of deaf children. The bulk of thechapter is devoted to methodological issues that arise in the study of deaflanguage acquisition, including design requirements and procedures (inparticular, the challenge of finding a homogeneous population of deaf children).The authors also discuss issues relevant to data analysis and presentation, andoffer information about transcription methods and database construction.

In Chapter 13, Hugo Quené offers a general introduction to methodology andstatistics as used in language acquisition research. He introduces the reader tothe concept of hypothesis testing, and discusses how studies can differ (forexample, how experimental designs containing one independent and one dependentvariable differ from designs that vary factors within subjects). He thenaddresses the issue of validity and the challenges of eliminating nuisancevariables and confounds. Quené also provides a discussion of data analysis,addressing issues such as level of significance, Type I errors (regarding a nulleffect as significant) vs. Type II errors (false negatives), effect size andstatistical power. Quené further expounds on these issues by providing a sectiondevoted to frequently asked questions about these very issues, and offers tipsfor dealing with challenges (such as increasing relative effect size tocompensate for a smaller sample size).


This book is an excellent manual for the language acquisition researcher, andwould constitute an ideal reader for courses on experimental methodology inacquisition research. It provides a rich and extensive overview of variousmethods that have been used in the field of language acquisition, and offers, ina very practical fashion, the advantages and disadvantages of each method. Thetarget audience is meant to include both beginner and experienced researchers;in this respect, it certainly succeeds as advertised. For the beginnerresearcher, the book provides an excellent introduction and overview of somecommonly used methodologies, and very helpfully explains the appropriateness ofeach method; for the experienced researcher, the book rises to the occasion inproviding a refresher on relevant methodologies. The greatest contribution ofthe book is that it compiles extremely useful and relevant information onvarious methodologies within a single source.

In covering as much as it does, however, one should note that the book is(naturally) somewhat limited in the amount of detail provided for eachmethodology. This book is in essence a handbook, and while it provides extremelyuseful and relevant information in a readily and easily accessible form, it isnot meant to provide exhaustive coverage of all the details behind eachmethodology. For that, one must look to additional sources. It is a merit of thebook, however, that each article does indeed point the reader to plentiful othersources, which include not only methodologically-oriented works that offer morefocused detail about the methods themselves, but also numerous previousacquisition studies that have made use of the methods in question. Thesereferences are provided throughout the discussion in each chapter, as well as inextensive reference sections at the end of each chapter. The book, then,provides an excellent basis of knowledge, but ultimately must direct the readerto other sources for further detail.

Another limitation that arises from its conciseness as a handbook is that inmany places it does not provide more detailed examples of experimentalconditions. Each chapter does a good job of adequately describing the relevantprocedures, but one must look to the references cited therein to see exactly howone would apply the method described (e.g. for examples of particular testitems, instructions to participants, picture stimuli, dialogues, etc.). Eachchapter adequately describes in prose various methodological points pertainingto relevant procedures, but it would have been helpful in many places to see anexample of an actual test condition. These are not completely absent from thebook, however; Sorace's chapter on magnitude estimation, for example, offers anexample set of instructions that walks the reader through the crucial componentsof the experimental set-up, from the calibration session, to the practicesession, to the actual test session (pp. 63-65). Such an explicit example offersthe reader a very helpful ''tour'' of the method, demonstrating very clearly howto apply the various methodological points raised throughout the rest of thechapter. Another helpful example is found in Johnson and Zamuner's chapter onmethods of infant testing, where the authors provide graphs depicting idealizeddata sets, which allow the reader to visualize target differences betweenconditions.

A notable merit of the book is that it does not restrict itself to anyparticular theoretical approach to language, and moreover, the methods that itcovers collectively address research in a very broad range of linguisticsubfields and research topics, including (but not restricted to): phonologicaldevelopment, grammatical feature specification, binding principles, grammaticalagreement, morphology, quantifier interpretation, optionality, languageattrition, language contact, word learning, phonotactic sensitivity, phonemiccontrasts, auditory processing, lexical/semantic/syntactic processing,reference, ambiguity resolution, pragmatics, pronoun/anaphora resolution, etc.As such, almost any language acquisition researcher will find some issue ofinterest in the volume.

In short, this volume succeeds in its goal of providing students and researcherswith very helpful and hands-on information about frequently used experimentalmethods in language acquisition research.


Lyn Shan Tieu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Connecticut. Her research interests include child language acquisition, theoretical semantics, and pragmatics. Her present research includes investigations of negative polarity item licensing in interrogative environments, as well as child first language acquisition of negative polarity phenomena. Other work involves investigating syntactic development in bilingual children.

Page Updated: 12-Jul-2011