LINGUIST List 24.1931

Sun May 05 2013

Review: Lang. Acquisition; Ling. Theories; Psycholinguistics: Piattelli-Palmarini & Berwick (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 26-Mar-2013
From: Melissa Whatley <>
Subject: Rich Languages From Poor Inputs
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Massimo Piattelli-PalmariniEDITOR: Robert C. BerwickTITLE: Rich Languages From Poor InputsPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Melissa Whatley, Indiana University Bloomington

SUMMARYThe book under review is an edited volume, divided into three parts. Thefirst presents and evaluates current research into Poverty of the Stimulus(POS), the second part discusses differences between child and adult grammar,and the third focuses on the development of children’s spelling and readingabilities. The volume is a product of a workshop at MIT with the same titlewhich was dedicated to Carol Chomsky, and the influence of her work is obviousthroughout the book. In the introduction, Chapter 1, the editors survey thethree sections, outline their purposes, and give a summary of each chapter.

Part I considers current research into POS and evaluates recent research thathas challenged it. Chapter 2, by the editors, Robert C. Berwick and MassimoPiattelli-Palmarini along with Noam Chomsky, outlines the main ideas behindthe concept of POS using data on polar interrogative structures (for example,[can [eagles that fly] v eat]) in English. This data is then accounted forstructurally rather than linearly via Merge operations. In the second half ofthis chapter, the authors outline and evaluate three recent approaches thatattempt to account for the same data, including a string-based approach, aBayesian model, and a bigram/trigram model, which uses strings of two or threewords to model language, concluding that none of these approaches accounts forthe original POS problem.

Chapter 3, written by Xuan-Nga Cao Kam and Janet Dean Fodor, replicates thebi- and tri-gram experiments just mentioned in an attempt to account for POS.These experiments investigate polar interrogatives containing relativeclauses. The original experiments (Reali & Christiansen 2003, 2005) find thata bigram model using transitional probabilities between words inchild-directed speech enables the model to make correct grammaticalityjudgments 96% of the time. Kam and Fodor replicate these experiments,pointing out that in the original investigations, and in their ownreplication, it is only the bigram [who\that is] that enables the model toselect the correct sentences. Without these bigrams the model needsphrase-structure information and information about ill-formed relative clausesin order make minimal errors in grammaticality judgments. The authorsconclude that mere statistical information about possible word strings cannotsubstitute for syntactic knowledge, and that learners are able to projectphrase-structure information onto strings of words.

The fourth chapter, by Noam Chomsky, is based on the idea that, while linearorder appears to be a logical way of explaining sentence structure, linguistsmust entertain the idea that other explanations of empirical data are betterat accounting for POS problems. Chomsky discusses the structure dependency ofthe surface forms of polar interrogatives and argues that syntactic objectsmust be labeled in order for the computational system to produce the correctsurface string of words. This chapter concludes that other POS problems mustbe resolved in similar ways. Investigators must provide principledexplanations of syntactic phenomena rather than simply descriptiveobservations.

In the fifth chapter, Susan Curtiss summarizes recent studies on modularity inthe brain with specific interest in the areas of the brain used for language.The chapter is divided into two main parts, the first dealing with BigModularity (BMod) and the other with Little Modularity (LMod). BMod treatsgrammar as a domain-specific mental faculty while LMod treats language as anentity comprised of distinct submodules that develop and functionindependently from one another. Throughout, Curtiss reviews studies on bothnormally developing children and children with developmental anomalies, aswell as studies on adults with various conditions, such as aphasia anddementia, that point towards a modular model of the mind. Curtiss concludesthat, in spite of its recent decline in popularity, this model is the correctone for investigating the mind.

Chapter six, the last in Part I, is by Lila Gleitman and Barbara Landau andexamines two specific issues that emerge from Carol Chomsky’s work: thevariability in learners’ access to input and the abilities of children toreconstruct sentence meaning even when structure is covert. The chapteroutlines Carol Chomsky’s studies of blind children acquiring lexical itemsthat refer to sight as well as her studies of children’s acquisition ofphrases containing a covert infinitival subject versus those with an overtsubject (This doll is hard to see vs. This doll is eager to see), the latterbeing acquired much earlier. Children appear to exploit the semantic contextof an utterance in order to correctly interpret the subject of the firstsentence as being someone besides ‘the doll’. Further evidence of the waychildren exploit their environments to acquire language is exemplified by theHome Signs of deaf children with hearing parents. The authors conclude thatlanguage develops from multiple cues in children’s surroundings rather thansimply pairing lexical items with items in the world.

Part II examines discrepancies between child and adult grammars. Chapter 7,by Jean-Rémy Hochmann and Jacques Mehler, explore recent findings in languageacquisition with the goal of bringing cognitive science and theoreticallinguistics together. The authors are of the opinion that these fields havemuch to learn from one another in spite of the fact that they have oftenignored and misrepresented each other. The studies outlined indicate thatchildren are sensitive to frequencies and perceptual differences, conceptsexplored in cognitive science research, in the input that they receive.Frequency information is later used to divide input into categories that theythen exploit for different functions, ideas explored in theoreticallinguistics. The authors conclude that language acquisition consists of aninitial stage of core representations, triggered by perceptual anddistributional properties of the input, which are later enriched by parametersettings and yield adult grammars.

In chapter 8, Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi explore the concept ofintervention and its application to language acquisition. The main conceptexplored is that the intervention of a syntactic object in a chain ofsyntactic objects with similar structural properties initially blocks theinterpretation that the two linked objects are, in fact, connected. Thisconcept is illustrated in sentences containing object relatives, such as ‘Showme the lion that the elephant wets [the lion]’. Since ‘the elephant’intervenes between the linked objects ‘the lion’, and is also an NP,interpretation and production of this type of sentence is difficult forchildren. The authors outline syntactic processes involved in the formationof the passive that appear to be active in object relative constructions aswell. The principal syntactic process explored here is smuggling, a processthrough which multiple syntactic arguments are moved as a chunk. In laterstages of development, intervention effects are voided by the adoption ofthese processes, thus yielding the adult version of grammar.

Chapter 9, by Itziar Laka, examines processing strategies in speakers of anergative language, Basque, and compares them to processing strategies ofspeakers of English. Previous literature has shown that English speakersprocess subject gap constructions, such as ‘The woman that saw the man arrivedearly’, faster than they do object gap constructions, such as ‘The woman thatthe man saw arrived early’. Laka finds that the opposite is true of Basquespeakers, and suggests that his results point to a more general and lesslanguage-dependent model of processing mechanisms, underscoring the importanceof studying a wide variety of languages before coming to conclusions about howinput is processed.

In chapter 10, Ken Wexler examines tough-movement developmental delay. Thisphenomenon, first pointed out by Carol Chomsky, is that children have troubleinterpreting the subject of ‘to see’ in sentences such as ‘The doll is hard tosee’ as an entity other than ‘the doll’ until more advanced stages ofsyntactic development. Wexler develops an explanation of this phenomenonusing the Universal Phrase Requirement, which restricts the computation neededto process a sentence and analyses it in phases from the bottom up. In adultgrammar, an NP such as ‘the doll’, which is generated in object position, canmove to IP, while in child grammar, it cannot. This difference is due to thefact that children initially block the movement of ‘the doll’ to IP becausetheir grammar has more phases than adult grammar. Wexler further supports hisanalysis with evidence of other structures that depend on this same mechanism:passive raising and object cleft sentences.

Chapter 11, by Julie Anne Legate and Charles Yang, introduces the idea of theTolerance Principle, that is, that language learners will be able to toleratea certain number of exceptions to linguistic generalizations before resortingto analyzing each individual item as its own entity. They apply thisprinciple to the acquisition of English metrical stress, a complicated,exception-ridden system. Using frequency information from a corpus ofchild-directed speech, they find that learners may initially opt for a systemwhich later drops below the productivity threshold. With more input learnersare able to extract certain patterns that aid acquisition.

Chapter 12, by Thomas G. Bever, outlines areas of current research thatreflect the work of Carol Chomsky: language learning happening over a longperiod of time and in spite of individual and environmental differences andthe application of linguistic science to reading. In this chapter, Beveroutlines many recent findings that support these three ideas and in hisconclusion emphasizes the importance of both input and time in languageacquisition, arguing for a more integrated theory of language behavior thatinvolves both words and syntactic patterns.

In Part III, Chapter 13, by Charles Read and Rebecca Treiman, reviews bothearly and later work on children’s invented spelling, the way children spellwords before instruction, which asserts that this spelling is systematic andhas something to do with children’s knowledge of language. The authorsoutline work on patterns found in invented spellings as well as pedagogicalimplications of such research for both reading and writing and concludes withthe hope that future research will be able to identify stages in thedevelopment of spelling, thus providing implications for curriculum design.

In Chapter 14, Stephanie Gottwald and Maryanne Wolf outline Carol Chomsky’swork on the relationship between language development and exposure to readingmaterial, which indicates that a child’s linguistic development is closelyrelated to the quantity and complexity of the reading material to which he/sheis exposed. The bulk of this chapter focuses on the various components thatcontribute to fluent reading, such as letter patterns, knowledge ofgrammatical patterns, and the use of language in social contexts. Gottwaldand Wolf present a study using RAVE-O intervention, a reading program designedto teach readers how to retrieve the sources needed for reading fluencyquickly. Results indicate that RAVE-O is superior to other interventions asfar as word attack and word identification are concerned, and is comparable inall other studied areas, regardless of students’ socioeconomic class, race, orIQ. The authors conclude with a call for more research into the connectionbetween oral language and reading development.

In Chapter 15, Wayne O’Neil deals with the phonology of invented spelling,linking certain invented spelling patterns to phonetic realities. The authorasserts that the precision that is present in invented spellings shows anawareness of phonetic detail that is beyond that of most adults. The chapterlists patterns of invented spelling for both consonant and vowel sounds andconcludes with a discussion of the transition English-speaking children mustmake from representing language phonetically to representing itmorphophonemically.

In Chapter 16 Merryl Goldberg connects children’s invented spelling, seen asevidence of their creativity, with the arts. The chapter emphasizes the use ofthe arts as a teaching tool, the arts as a way to express feelings and ideas,the negativity of misconceptions of children’s creative thinking processes,and the importance of the arts to invention. The author then connects thecreativity of invented spelling with arts education, viewing inventedspellings as acts of creativity. The latter part of the chapter outlines theauthor’s concerns for education, which overlap considerably with CarolChomsky’s and her students’ description of the way children learn and develop.The chapter concludes with the idea that the integration of the arts andcreativity in curriculum encourages risk-taking and can give children a senseof purpose in learning.

The Epilogue reprints an article by Carol Chomsky from 1986. In this article,Chomsky presents linguistic data from three deaf and blind researchparticipants who have learned to communicate using the Tadoma method, atactile manner of language acquisition. Chomsky’s subjects perform either ator above average for hearing individuals on almost all of the testsadministered, the notable exception being use of rising intonation forquestions. Chomsky’s main conclusion is that tactile perception of speech isenough for language development to occur -- language development occurs evenunder conditions of extreme poverty of the stimulus.

EVALUATIONThe field of language acquisition, especially second language acquisition, hasrecently been inundated with a plethora of theoretical models that questionthe validity of cognitive approaches to language learning (see Atkinson, 2011for a review). These models force us to examine critically concepts that werepreviously taken for granted in acquisition, such as the idealized languagethat is meant to be the target for learners, the purely cognitive nature oflanguage, and, essential to this review, poverty of the stimulus (Atkinson,2002). While the themes in the book are firmly rooted in cognitivistapproaches to language acquisition that recent models of acquisition claim tobe against, the incorporation of ideas beyond those of a traditionalcognitivist approach to language acquisition, such as the incorporation ofcontext in Chapter 6 and the treatment of frequency in Chapter 7, is obvious.A further incorporation of language as a tool that learners use and experience(Beckner et al., 2009; Bybee 2008) will be necessary to approaches to languageacquisition in the future.

The third part of the book offers a much-desired connection betweentheoretical linguistics and its practical application to language learning;however, the connection between this part and the syntax actually discussed inthe first two parts is weak at times. The discussion of invented spelling,for example, appears to connect better with theories of phonology rather thansyntax. In addition to the lack of a link between the discussion of inventedspelling in the third part and the syntactic theories outlined in the firsttwo sections, the inclusion of a chapter comparing Basque and English adultgrammars in Chapter 9 feels somewhat out of place in a section dedicated tothe differences between child and adult grammars.

In spite of the disconnect between this last part and the rest of the book,the volume reviewed here offers a very comprehensive and detailed overview ofthe state of current POS research and offers great insight into POS problemscurrently under investigation in the field of language acquisition.

REFERENCESAtkinson, D. (Ed.). (2011). Alternative Approaches to Second LanguageAcquisition. New York: Routledge.

Atkinson, D. (2002). Toward a Sociocognitive Approach to Second LanguageAcquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 86, 525 - 545.

Beckner, C. et al. (2009) Language is a complex adaptive system: PositionPaper [The ''Five Graces Group'']. In N. C. Ellis & D. Larsen-Freeman (Eds.),Language as a Complex Adaptive System (pp. 1 - 26). University of MichiganLanguage Learning Research Club.

Bybee, J. (2008). Usage-based grammar and second language acquisition. In P.Robinson & N. C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive linguistics and secondlanguage acquisition (pp. 216 - 236). New York: Routledge.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERMelissa Whatley is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Herresearch interests include second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, andsyntax.

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