LINGUIST List 23.699

Fri Feb 10 2012

Review: Lang. Acquisition; Ling. Theories: de Villiers & Roeper (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 10-Feb-2012
From: Darcy Sperlich <>
Subject: Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition
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EDITORS: Jill de Villiers, Tom RoeperTITLE: Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language AcquisitionSERIES TITLE: Studies in Theoretical PsycholinguisticsPUBLISHER: SpringerYEAR: 2011

Darcy Sperlich, Department of Applied Linguistics and Language Studies,University of Auckland / School of English, Manukau Institute of Technology

SUMMARYThis handbook is the newest in line on First Language Acquisition (FLA), withnine chapters (excluding the introduction) on major topics in FLA. I willprovide a brief summary of each chapter, followed by an evaluation.

Introduction -- Jill de Villiers and Tom RoeperThe editors discuss the aims and contributions the handbook makes, setting thegenerative scene and providing a clear overview of each paper.

Missing Subjects in Early Child Language -- Nina HyamsHyams first focuses on parameter setting and maturational analyses regardingmissing subjects, discussing the pros and cons of pro-drop setting,morphological uniformity (having to do with the relationship between inflectionand null subjects), topic drop, competing grammars (both settings are consideredinitially but one wins out), and licensing of PRO. Next, she turns her attentionto missing subjects in finite clauses, discussing the more contemporary proposalcalled 'root subject drop'.

To this point her discussion is focused on the grammar internal (UG) hypothesesof subject drop but is followed up by investigating grammar-external hypotheses.The first of which regards processing limits (e.g., the 'output omissionmodel'), where subject drop is explained in terms of the limits on how childrencan process sentences, and the second of metric effects (pronouns do not fit atrochaic foot). She then reviews studies using differing methodologies, showingthat the converging evidence falls on the grammar internal side. Finally, shediscusses discourse factors surrounding null subjects, concluding that the areais a highly complex one requiring further research.

Grammatical Computation in the Optional Infinitive Stage -- Ken WexlerWexler's chapter tackles the question of why young children use an infinitivemain verb (where one would use a finite main verb), and how to account for it.This is termed the Optional Infinitive (OI) stage, where Wexler first lays thegroundwork and gives a thorough background of its development, presenting a widerange of studies. He discusses how languages may or may not go through the OIstage, as well as looking at the Agr/Tns Omission Model (ATOM) model in regardsto Case assignment.

Subsequently, he turns to models of the OI, presenting extensive evidential datato show that the 'radical omission' model as the right path to take. One suchmodel is the Unique Checking Constraint (UCC), originating from Wexler himself.After an in-depth discussion of the model, he compares it to the TruncationModel, and ultimately rejects it in favor of the UCC. The topic shifts to thematurational nature of OI, and how contemporary studies point to geneticinfluence on language development.

The last major section of this chapter sets out to refute empiricist models ofOI, with the lion's share of negative attention focused on Legate and Yang'slearning theory model. He critiques their proposals in great detail, showingtheir weaknesses in favor of the UCC. Finally, he covers be-omission, andmentions other topics that he was not able to cover in the chapter.

Computational Models of Language Acquisition -- Charles YangYang presents his approach to language acquisition through a probabilisticgrammar theory, in which children entertain multiple grammars (UG restricted),and through language input, one will eventually win out. He starts byintroducing us to the statistics behind word and construction frequency, and thetheories of how children set out to learn them (in terms of positive andnegative results). He covers distributional learning in terms of syntacticcategories and grammar, presenting various factors that computationallinguistics brings to the table.

Yang then moves on to models of acquisition in the Principles and Parametersframework, and focuses upon probabilistic models of parameter setting, andshows, for example, how parameters have signatures in the input, leading toefficient parameter setting.

Finally, the chapter covers learnability and development, discussing variousissues such as the Subset Principle in how grammar is restricted, to howparameters relate to the development of child language.

The Acquisition of the Passive -- Kamil Ud DeenDeen starts by covering the background of passives and the difficulty they posefor children (first focusing on English), covering issues such as role reversal,frequency, and short vs. long passives, among others. Next, he moves onto earlyliterature on the matter, and then focuses on the analyses provided. Theseinclude the A-Chain Deficit Hypothesis and its predictions, and its updatedversion called the Universal Phase Requirement. A similar overview is given ofthe Theta-Transmission model. Next is the issue of frequency, noting that whilethe passive may be rare in English, this is certainly not necessarily the issuewith other languages (and Deen uses a study on Sesotho to illustrate this).

Deen concludes with more contemporary studies, the first which notes the misuseof agents and experiencers in Truth Value Judgment Tasks, correcting that use,resulting in data that are problematic for the aforementioned models. Thesecond study uses priming methodology which shows the passive is primable inyoung children, hence alluding their knowledge of it. This is followed by astudy into Mandarin and Cantonese speaking children which demonstrates theirbetter grasp of the passive over their English counterparts; and finally a newerstudy on Sesotho passives confirming young children's knowledge of the passive.

The Acquisition Path for Wh-Questions -- Tom Roeper and Jill de VilliersThe authors first cover basic wh-terminology, and then move to wh-movement andauxiliary movement in child language. First, they show that through auxiliarymovement more light is cast upon the English child's CP structure (C with noSpec position), and also the differences found in Romance languages. Theyprogress into issues surrounding subject and objects, and how a child mightunderstand wh-questions about them. Next, the authors consider cross-overeffects in wh-questions, before moving onto long distance wh-questions, notingthat it is not clear whether subject or object wh-questions are relativelyharder to interpret.

The next section discusses quantificational properties of wh-questions, wherethe authors investigate the interface of semantics and pragmatics with syntax.For example, the word 'who' may ask for one or more persons, and within childlanguage the child first would only provide an answer with a single person(e.g., 'who is eating ice cream' would elicit 'the girl', even though there arethree girls eating it), whereas at a later stage children realize that they mayprovide an answer which encompasses all the people . The authors then considerSuperiority effects in various languages, where they consider the issue of theeffect being absent in German.

The last major section deals with barriers to wh-movement, which are shown to bepresent in child grammar. Medial questions are next, discussed in terms ofPartial movement (a wh-word has moved to either the first or embedded CP),noting that there are at least five different varieties of movement. Finally,they round off the discussion by elaborating wh-movement in terms of the StrongMinimalist Thesis and the insights it provides, e.g. the application of Phaseand its implications for wh-movement.

Binding and Coreference: Views from Child Language -- Cornelia HamannHamann begins the discussion with the 'Delay of Principle B Effect', wherebychildren do not interpret pronouns (in the object position) correctly at times,something which has since been updated to the 'Pronoun Interpretation Problem(PIP)'. She then sets the theoretical background of the Binding Theory (whilealso showing its problems), and pragmatic approaches to binding and coreference.Her discussion progresses to the typology of anaphors, and of binding inMinimalist terms.

The next section looks to apply this to children's language, focusing on theirinterpretation of pronouns. After reviewing several studies, the question isasked whether or not there is a PIP effect at all. Again after reviewing theliterature, Hamann concludes that the PIP is related to coreference rather thanbinding. This is followed by a discussion on child English and Dutch studies interms of reflexivity and chains, before moving onto clitic pronouns, where thePIP effect is not observed. Analyses of why the PIP effect is not observed insuch languages are covered, from a structural and pragmatic viewpoint.

The final section concerns more recent developments, reviewing studies thatcriticize earlier studies on methodology, and henceforth their conclusions. Thefinal component covers how a 'pronoun parameter' might be set.

Universal Grammar and the Acquisition of Japanese Syntax -- Koji Sugisaki andYukio OtsuThis chapter focuses solely on the child's acquisition of Japanese, the onlylanguage-specific article in this handbook. Each topic is supported byexperimental studies. The authors first discuss the basic word order in Japanese(SOV), and how SVO and OSV sentences originate from that basic order (viascrambling), and how children interpret those sentences. Next is theconfigurational nature of child Japanese. Third, wh-movement (in-situ) is shownto be locally restricted; fourth, the c-command condition; and fifth, bindingconditions on the Japanese anaphor 'zibun'. The final section considers thedistinction between indirect and adversative passives and if children are awareof this distinction.

Studying Language Acquisition Through the Prism of Isomorphism -- Julien MusolinoThis chapter has to do with scope ambiguity with quantifiers and negatives insentences, e.g. 'Every linguist didn't read this review', termed Isomorphism.Children and adults tend to have different interpretations of such sentences,and the author provides basic background on the relationship between quantifiersand negation, and then on his own previous study that discovered the phenomenaand his grammatical explanation for it (which has since been abandoned). Thisbrings us to studies that led to the above conclusion, and to discussion ofIsomorphism having garden-path effects, and occurring as a pragmaticepiphenomenon, introducing the Question-Answer Requirement (QAR) analysis. Thisis followed by a detailed critique of the QAR, showing its shortcomings. Thefinal point is that Isomorphism should be viewed as a progressive researchprogram, discussing the various roads ahead.

Acquiring Knowledge of Universal Quantification -- William PhilipThe concluding chapter focuses on a similar topic to the preceding one,quantification. Philip begins by considering what role UG has in learningquantification, covering the difficulties it poses, the restriction on it that achild must learn, and the guidance UG provides. He then focuses on aninteresting problem observed called 'exhaustive pairing', e.g. given thesentence 'Each linguist is reading a book', and there is a picture with threelinguists and four books (implying one is unread (the book and not thelinguist)), a child might reject the above sentence because of the unread book.He reviews the proposed analyses of the problem, and focuses on the PragmaticAccount where its predictions are tested in three differing experiments. Icannot comment on these experiments in detail, but suffice to say his findingssupport his view of UG guidance given to the acquisition of quantification(along with other factors).

EVALUATIONOne gets the distinct impression that the scholars in this handbook are on topof their field, as their articles are thoroughly referenced and the issuescomprehensively covered. Considering Hyams, nothing, so to speak, is missing onher discussion of missing subjects, as she skillfully takes us from thebeginnings of the research issue to the present, leaving no stone left unturned.Reading Wexler, one has the impression that his theory is the only way to go, ashe methodologically takes apart all other competing theories, leaving his as thewinner. Surprisingly perhaps, one theory that Wexler deconstructs is Yang's,presented by Yang himself in the next article. Yang, on the other hand, is moreconcerned with explaining his theory rather than comparing it with thecompetition, and once finished the readers will be left to make up their ownmind, as both scholars present very convincing arguments. Deen's chapter on thepassive brings to bear good cross-linguistic evidence from lesser-studiedlanguages in FLA. One may note however that he states that Cantonese passivesobligatory use the 'by phrase' in every passive -- this is not completelycorrect, as it has been noted in Matthews and Yip (1994:150) that Cantonese mayalso drop the 'by phrase', which has come about by influence of Mandarin. Roeperand de Villier's chapter on wh-questions is an excellent overview on the issuesat hand, taking us up to current Minimalist thinking and applying it to thephenomena observed. Perusing Hamann, the studies reviewed in her chapter aremostly concerned with structural and pragmatic theories of binding; while it isunderstandable that most previous studies had been undertaken with the Bindingtheory in mind, recent Minimalist trends (e.g., Reuland (2011), Rooryck andWyngaerd (2011)) aim to do away with the theory completely. Personally, I wouldhave liked to see the issues put under the Minimalist microscope, as this wouldhave an impact on the discussion of Principle B (where the current literatureseeks to do away with). Sugisaki and Otsu's article is a good all rounder whichapplies the generative analyses in FLA to Japanese, presumably to show thesuccess of UG applied to an Asian language. Musolino's chapter seems to be theleast UG-driven, as his investigation into isomorphism is semantic in nature. Tobe fair, his earliest account of this problem sought a grammatical explanationwhich has now been abandoned in favor of a more overarching research program;yet after reading his present account I thought it a little odd, considering itssemantic nature, to find it in a volume dedicated to the generative paradigm.Philip's final chapter on UG quantification is a very interesting read, and theexperiments he undertakes deserve to be commended as they are very well thoughtout and designed.

Looking at the book as a whole, the chapters are authoritative, well written,easy to follow and fit well with each other. Authors are well aware of eachother's contributions and reference each other on occasion. The languagesdiscussed cover a wide typological range, showing the wide applicability oftheir approaches, and also show further avenues of research. Regarding themedium, it is good that the publishers have it as an e-book as well as on paperfor easier access.Lastly, this volume is overwhelmingly focused on state-of-the-art discussions,with only Philip offering a new study, and in fairness, as the editors state intheir introduction, this is their main purpose.

Finally, how does this book differ from recent volumes on FLA? If we pick up TheCambridge Handbook of Child Language (2009), we find wide ranging topics on allaspects of child language written by many different scholars in the field. Thecurrent volume is simply focused on generative approaches, and authors have beengiven generous space to review and argue their positions, which ultimatelyleaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the field. In light of this,the book is most useful for graduate students and researchers alike. Overall,this handbook is an excellent resource for those who wish to understand the coreissues surrounding language acquisition from the point of view of the generativeparadigm.

REFERENCESBavin, E.L. (ed). (2009). The Cambridge Handbook of Child Language. Cambridge,Cambridge University Press.

Matthews, S. and V. Yip. (1994). Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London, NewYork, Routledge.

Reuland, E. (2011). Anaphora and Language Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts, TheMIT Press.

Rooryck, J. and G. V. Wyngaerd. (2011). Dissolving Binding Theory. New York,Oxford University Press.


Darcy Sperlich is currently a senior lecturer of ESOL in the School ofEnglish at the Manukau Institute of Technology, in Auckland, New Zealand.He is also a PhD student at the Department of Applied Language Studies andLinguistics at the University of Auckland, investigating anaphoricinterpretation in Chinese Mandarin by speakers of other languages, andwhether or not this suggests an anaphoric pragmatic/syntactic division oflabour in the languages concerned. His other research interests includeChinese comparative dialectology, especially as related to syntax.

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