LINGUIST List 30.1451

Mon Apr 01 2019

Review: Language Acquisition; Linguistic Theories; Psycholinguistics: Hickmann, Veneziano, Jisa (2018)

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Date: 12-Nov-2018
From: Ottavia Tordini <>
Subject: Sources of Variation in First Language Acquisition
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Maya Hickmann
EDITOR: Edy Veneziano
EDITOR: Harriet Jisa
TITLE: Sources of Variation in First Language Acquisition
SUBTITLE: Languages, contexts, and learners
SERIES TITLE: Trends in Language Acquisition Research 22
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Ottavia Tordini, Università di Pisa


The book “Sources of Variation in First Language Acquisition” edited by Maya Hickmann, Edy Veneziano & Harriet Jisa (2018), presents a variegated range of approaches (i.e. linguistic, psycholinguistic, multimodal, cognitive), which try to portray the great variability encountered along different types of language developmental processes. To pave the way for the following chapters, the scholars introduce a preliminary distinction between exogenous and endogenous factors of variation across speech, gestures and signs. The former account for external influences, such as: linguistic and/or cultural environment, socio-economic status, degrees and types of bilingualism (simultaneous vs sequential), amount and quality of social interactions. On the other hand, the latter concern subjects’ idiosyncratic features, namely: gender, age, cognitive abilities (memory, conceptual development, etc.), as well as attitude and motivation.

The volume is made up of several contributions and is organized in three parts. Part I (from Chapter I to VII) encompasses various comparative perspectives on universal vs variable (i.e. cross-linguistic) aspects of language development. Its contributions place emphasis on non-linear developmental patterns encountered in children acquiring a first language, which exhibit some fluctuations and regression across the developmental span. Ranging from the very first months of life to later childhood, the analyses focus on general vs language-specific features of the target language(s) by taking into account several domains: phonology (Chapter I by Marilyn Vihman & Sophie Wauquier; Chapter II by Yvan Rose); prosody, morphosyntax and semantics (Chapter III by Perrine Brusini, Alex de Carvalho, Isabelle Dautriche, Ariel Gutman, Elodie Cauvet, Séverine Millotte, Pascal Amsili & Anne Christophe; Edy Veneziano & Christophe Parisse), and discourse organization (Jean-Marc Colletta, Ramona Kunene Nicolas & Michèle Guidetti).

Chapter I investigates the nature and the structure of developmental phonological templates, i.e. idiosyncratic word patterns, showing that existing resources are employed to face novel elements. Habitual and familiar motoric sequences are constantly applied by the child as a cognitive response to difficulties encountered in word perception, articulation and memory. The scholars then raise the question whether such patterns can reflect universal trends in early stages of acquisition, regardless of target language. Based on a cross-linguistic comparison of early words in 15 languages, they provide evidence of commonalities in templates used for the acquisition of certain syllable structures (for instance, VC(:)V). At the same time, they ascribe possible variation related to the child’s linguistic environment to universal constraints in articulatory patterns.

In Chapter II, Rose explores the fundamental role of abstract categories (both segmental and prosodic features) in phonological acquisition. As basis for this assumption, the author takes on an emergentist approach, according to which abstract categories are not innately available, but gradually emerge during the child’s lexical development. Based on the radical version of Templatic Phonology (Firth, 1957), Rose conducts an experimental analysis on a Dutch-learning child, to describe her development of various clusters with consonantal onsets. In the subject’s phonological behavior emerged an early idiosyncratic phase accountable for through a holistic approach. In a subsequent phase, however, abstraction was evident: for this reason, the author states that formal models of phonological representation are more suitable to describe later developmental stages.

In Chapter III, Brusini et al. explain the interaction between phonological phrases and function words in bootstrapping lexical and syntactic acquisition through the creation of a syntactic skeleton. The first are characterized by units with final lengthening and strengthening of the initial phoneme, while the latter are easily-recognizable grammatical items (i.e. articles, pronouns, etc.) made up of extremely frequent syllables. Through various experiments, the scholars demonstrate that 18-month-old children exploit prosodic units of phonological phrases to perform syntactic analyses, and simultaneously make use of function words to detect categories of nouns and verbs, as well as their plausible meanings. Moreover, the authors create a successful Naïve Bayes model on a small vocabulary to probabilistically categorize prosodic phrases. Through this procedure, they confirm that prosodic units can be recognized even with very little initial knowledge, as happens in children.

Relatedly, Veneziano and Parisse (Chapter IV) conduct an analysis on French-speaking children (from 2 to 4 years of age) based on pointing choices, to assess how and to what extent they could retrieve the function of category-specific grammatical morphemes. Their purpose is to evaluate their abilities to use these morphemes for nouns and verbs (defined articles and third person subject clitic pronouns, respectively) to infer the meaning of homophonous words that commonly are either nouns or verbs, or of nonce words produced in noun or verb syntactic contexts. Group results show that, beyond chance, children chose the picture of an object when the homophonous or nonce word was in a noun context, and the picture of a person performing an action when these were in a verb context. Individual results were also presented, showing that some 2- and 3-year-old children performed successfully in the whole set of items: inter-subject variation was revealed to be a relevant factor in this comprehension task.

Still within the domain of morphosyntax and semantics, Choi (Chapter V) explores language-specific development of motion expressions in 2 children speaking Korean, compared to previous data on children acquiring French and English. While Korean and French are verb-framed languages expressing Path of motion in the verb root, English is a satellite-framed language which conversely expresses Manner in the verb root (Talmy, 1985). However, since Korean singularly admits serial verb constructions (SVCs) which allow Path and Manner verbs to co-occur within the clause, Korean children express more information in single clauses than the French children. Namely, they show a higher utterance density since early stages of acquisition. The scholar consequently identifies inter-type variation (Korean and French vs English), but also intra-type variation between Korean and French, which accounts for a significant cross-linguistic variability.

On the other hand, in the last two chapters of Part I, the interplay between speech and co-verbal gestures is investigated. In Chapter VI, Özyürek provides an ample literature review of recent studies on cross-linguistic variation in children’s multimodal utterances. These results suggest that not only speech patterns, but also gestures are notably language-specific since early acquisition, and that they are reciprocally coordinated and both influence children’s developmental trajectories. The scholar points out the gradual interaction between these two modalities, which however is fully achieved only during later development. In Chapter VII, Colletta et al. present a comparative study on speech and gestures produced in narratives by two groups including children and adults: one group speaking Zulu, a pro-drop Bantu language, the other speaking French, a non-pro-drop Romance language. Rather than cross-linguistic types of variation, the authors identify significant cross-cultural differences between the two groups. The fact that Zulu informants conveyed more details in their narratives in both modalities (i.e. more representational gestures), while French expressed more verbal comments and pragmatic gestures (i.e. discursive gestures and anaphora), suggest that the former rely on their culturally-specific oral tradition, whereas the latter rely on a literate tradition.

Part II of this volume (from Chapter VIII to XIII) is devoted to describing the variation in input and contexts during acquisition. Specifically, Chapter VIII (Eve V. Clark) focuses on the multiplicity of conversational partners as a relevant factor in the expansion of children’s communicative skills; Chapter IX (Sophie Kern & Christophe dos Santos) accounts for the impact of input features in early lexical development; Chapters XI (Anne Salazar Orvig, Haydée Marcos, Julien Heurdier & Christine da Silva), XII (Marzena Watoreck) and XIII (Josie Bernicot, Antonine Goumi, Alain Bert-Erboul & Olga Volckaert-Legrier) explore the variability in discourse types and registers, while Chapter X (Dominique Bassano & Paul van Geert) investigates the bidirectional input-output relationship between child-directed speech and language development.

Among the numerous aspects of variation in young children’s exposure to language, Chapter VIII chooses to explore and quantify children’s conversational interactions. The author focuses on the variation of common ground according to the interlocutor children interact with, claiming that exposure and interactions vary according to whether interlocutors are male or female, use a certain dialect, and are familiar with the child’s daily routines. Also, she demonstrates that children interacting with more expert adult speakers would improve in speed of processing, communicative skills and early vocabulary acquisition. Providing data on the amount of child-adult interaction in words/hour by social class, Clark observes that children who extend their interaction to a larger number of different adults are exposed to a certain amount of unfamiliar words, and are earlier to gain experience in recognizing familiar words from different speakers.

Chapter IX investigates the role of word frequency (WF) and neighbourhood density (ND) in lexical development of 462 French-speaking children between 16 and 30 months. The authors collected French data through the Inventaire Français du Développement. A multiple regression analysis reveals that ND and WF together predict 45% of the variance in vocabulary size, and 64.6% of the variance in nouns. For predicates, however, the analysis reveals no correlation between the size of predicate vocabulary with either of the two variables. Results hence comply with the Emergentist Coalition Model (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2000), as children employ a range of cues for word learning which can vary over time and according to the grammatical nature of the learned words.

Chapter X proposes a dynamic comparison between child speech and child-directed speech (CDS), focusing on the acquisition of nominal determiners of three monolingual children between one and three years old. Raw tokens’ percentages show explosions in determiner use in the three children, yet with variations in timing and amplitude. However, no correspondence is found in CDS, which instead presents fluctuations. Data smoothed and normalized through a dynamic modeling (an extension of the Scaffolding Model) indicate corresponding changing patterns in child speech and CDS. Accordingly, a reciprocal influence is found between input and output: adaptation is hence understood as a mutual process that facilitates learning.

Chapter XI considers from a dialogic perspective the role of activities and speech genres in toddlers’ acquisition of referring expressions (specifically, 3rd person clitic pronoun (3rdPP)). The authors analyze a corpus of 25 dialogues of French speaking toddlers in various activities. General Linear Mixed Effect Regressions indicate that the use of referring expressions is not uniform across activities and genres. Everyday activities increase the use of nouns and strong demonstrative pronouns, but have an opposite effect on 3rdPP; games with toys increase the use of strong demonstrative pronouns, do not affect the use of 3rdPP, and have a negative effect on nouns; iconic material involves a more frequent use of clitic demonstratives and, to a lesser extent, of 3rdPP. On the other hand, speech genres have a stronger impact on clitic forms. Coherently with usage-based perspectives, it is hence argued that nouns and strong demonstrative pronouns are less dependent on original sequences and can be used in a more generalized manner with respect to emergent clitics.

Based on a functionalist approach, Watorek (Chapter XII) instead explores the role of communicative task and text types in the development of discourse competence. The database consists of spatial descriptions and film retellings, as orally produced by French children (aged 4, 7, and 10), compared to a control group of adult French speakers. Results demonstrate that young children strive to build up multidimensional spatial description. Indeed, this poses more cognitive challenges compared to the linear production of retellings/narratives, which are instead chronologically structured.

The purpose of Chapter XIII is to examine the hybrid nature of the texting register, which – differently from traditional writing – is not the outcome of explicit academic instruction. The authors conduct analyses on a one-year longitudinal corpus (2009-2010) of text messages produced by 19 French teens aged 11–12 years, with no previous texting experience. Results show that both “textism” (i.e. a change in the orthographic form from the traditional writing) and the absence of opening/closing in texts increase over time, suggesting that the texting register develops in natural situations through daily interactions, similarly to spoken language.

Finally, Part III of this volume (from Chapter XIV to Chapter XX) accounts for the variation regarding types of acquisition and types of learners, i.e. monolinguals, simultaneous bilinguals, adults L2 learners and speakers with different types of impairment. In detail, Chapters XIV (Brian MacWhinney) and XV (Michèle Kail, Maria Kihlstedt & Philippe Bonnet) explore cognitive processes in both children and adult bilinguals; Chapter XVI (Aliyah Morgenstern, Marion Blondel, Pauline Beaupoil-Hourdel, Sandra Benazzo, Dominique Boutet, Angelika Kochan & Fanny Limousin) and XVII (Marie-Anne Salladre, Camille Schoder & Maya Hickmann) show results of multimodal analyses describing the acquisition of spoken and sign language in children; Chapter XVIII (Helen Tager-Flusberg), XIX (Judy Reilly, Josie Bernicot, Lara Polse, Thierry Olive, Joel Uze, Beverly Wulfeck, Lucie Broc, Monik Favart and Mark Appelbaum) and XX (Virginie Dardier & Maud Champagne-Lavau) focus instead on the multifaceted dimensions of acquisition with Language Impairment and Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Chapter XIV presents the Unified Competition Model (UCM), an inclusive model of both first and second language learning which stems from the Competition Model developed by MacWhinney & Bates (1989). UCM posits that: a) first and second language learning is based upon a common set of socio-cognitive processes; b) that, rather than by the closure of a critical-period window, they are differentiated by the four risk factors of entrenchment, transfer, overanalysis, and isolation. Entrenchment is a neural process that develops from birth onwards through a persistent use of L1. Transfer results from the predominant influence of L1 during the initial phase of L2 learning. Overanalysis indicates the tendency of adult learners to grasp the general meaning of utterances, while neglecting function words and grammatical markers. Isolation can arise as we get older, due to an increasing difficulty for L1 mature communities to become integrated within L2 groups. Antidotes to these four risk factors are found in the processes of resonance, decoupling, chunking, and participation that are available to both L1 and L2 learners.

Still within the Competition Model (MacWhinney & Bates, 1989), in Chapter XV Kail et al. investigate on-line sentence processing in a cross-linguistic perspective, by presenting developmental data on 41 French/Swedish bilinguals. They focus on word order configurations and inflectional morphology to identify whether on-line processing procedures are language-related or driven by more general factors. Based on online grammaticality judgments, the authors demonstrate the similarity in weight of each “cue cost” component between simultaneous French/Swedish bilinguals and their monolingual counterparts – although bilinguals were slower and less accurate. Overall, the scholars suggest a separate independent development in bilingual first language acquisition.

Chapter XVI is devoted to analyzing variation in acquisition through a longitudinal multimodal analysis of negation in the productions of five children aged 0-3 (monolingual French, monolingual English, monolingual French Sign Language (LFS), bilingual French/LSF, bilingual French/Italian) interacting with caretakers. A quantitative evaluation of both visual-gestural and auditory-vocal modalities shows that negative constructions are conveyed through these multi-semiotic means by all the children, regardless of the language(s) and/or hearing impairment. Nonetheless, each child follows a different pattern. Overall, results suggest that children tend at the beginning to perform non-conventional body movements to express rejection or avoidance, and later become more involved with conventional gestures (along with spoken productions for non-signing subjects).

Salladre et al. explore in Chapter XVII visuo-spatial modality and iconicity in sign language, by focusing on how deaf children aged 5–10 and adults producing LSF describe motion events with variable Paths and Manners. Analyses show that children produce dense utterances encoding both Path and Manner from five years on, by means of various iconic structures. Nonetheless, the authors note that discrepancies arise with age regarding the expression of event types (downward, upward, across), and that the semantic density increases with age when expressing two perspectives (observer and character), similarly to the encoding of relevant locative information. Globally, iconicity appears to change form depending on the structure used to express motion components, rather than on age during development.

Chapter XVIII explores the developmental origins laying behind the multifaceted phenomenon of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The paper provides either literature review about the earliest behavioral and neural predictors of language in ASD, focusing on infants at risk due to the presence of disorders within the family, and both recent and current research on such predictors in young children. From these observations, it emerges that investigating nonverbal cognitive ability and the developing of gestural communication can be understood as longitudinal predictors for language outcomes in ASD.

Chapter XIX illustrates a follow-up of a previous study (Relly, Bernicot, Olive, Favart, Wulfeck & Appelbaum, 2014) that explored written narratives from children with LI (language impairment) and their typically developing peers (TD) in French and English, by adding up analyses of their spoken narrative performances. Their task is to handle with two different modalities (spoken vs written language) and with two typologically-different languages (French and English) to obtain a wider and more in-depth comprehension of LI phenomena. Statistical analyses show that subjects with LI tend to produce less spoken language than TD subjects, but no statistical difference was found between the length of written text across the French-speaking groups. However, written productions of children with LI exhibit more morphological errors than those of their TD counterparts, especially in French, which is notably rich in inflections. Concerning syntax, TD children and children with LI show sensitivity to cultural-specific patterns. In conclusion, the authors demonstrate that structural, multimodal and pragmatic factors all contribute to the definition of the LI phenotype. Ultimately, the last Chapter of this volume addresses problems concerning the comprehension of “nonliteral language” (specifically, of indirect requests) among children and adolescents with acquired brain damages, with respect to adults with the same impairment. The authors describe similarities and differences in pragmatic and metapragmatic difficulties across people with right-hemisphere damage (RHD) and people with traumatic brain injury (TBI), and generally observe that much research is still needed to assess whether brain injuries can give an insight into the general pragmatic aspects involved in language acquisition.


The main concern of this dense collection of papers is to demonstrate that sources of variation surfacing during language acquisition should not be minimized or neglected in favor of universal and linear developmental patterns. Rather, all the authors suggest that research into language acquisition should incorporate factors triggering variation for a fuller and more subtle understanding of language processing. In my opinion, the task of providing insight into such a complex panorama has been accomplished, first, because we have benefited from a clearly defined and homogeneous structure of chapters and paragraphs, and, second, because the plain language employed by most authors, as well as the simple graphs, help the reader to understand the main content. Overall, we believe that the contents are coherent with each other, and that the book can be of great benefit for young researchers who approach the scope of variation in language acquisition: the book is undeniably up-to-date, and several suggestions for further research are provided (see e.g. for instance, Chapter XVI).

Nonetheless, we observe that Chapters IV, VIII, IX, XI, XII, XII, XV, XVI all deal with French-speaking subjects and are mostly written by French authors – or by authors working in French institutions. Although the reader can find some cross-linguistic comparisons with other languages, he cannot avoid noting a sort of privileged focus on French among the contributions – whose total number is visibly conspicuous. Moreover, we would like to point out that the contributors have mainly concentrated on morphology, morphosyntax, lexicon and pragmatics, substantially neglecting a broad range of phenomena involving phonetic variation in first and second language acquisition (only Chapters I and II have dealt with phonology). In my opinion, one or two contributions should have addressed the problems concerning this specific domain.

In conclusion, however, I believe that such limitations do not invalidate the high quality of the papers, and that this collection undoubtedly represents a significant and up-to-date point of reference for young scholars, as it opens up to a wide gamut of possibilities of exploring variation in acquisition from multiple perspectives.


Bates, Elizabeth & MacWhinney, Brian. 1989. Functionalism and the Competition Model. In MacWhinney, Brian & Bates, Elizabeth (eds.). The crosslinguistic study of sentence processing. New York: Cambridge University Press. 3-73.

Firth, John Rupert. 1957. Sounds and prosodies. Papers in Linguistics, 1934-1951. 121-138.

Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy, Michnick Golinkoff, Roberta & Hollich, George. 2000. An emergentist coalition model for word learning. Becoming a word learner: A debate on lexical acquisition. 136-164.

Relly, Judy S., Bernicot, Josie, Olive, Thierry, Favart, Monik, Wulfeck, Barbara & Appelbaum, Mark. 2014. Written Narratives from French and English speaking children with language impairment. In Arfé, Barbara, Dockrell, Julie & Berninger, Virginia (eds.). Writing development and instruction in children with hearing, speech and oral language difficulties. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 176-187.

Talmy, Leonard. 1985. Lexicalization patterns: semantic structure in lexical forms. In Timothy Shopen (ed.). Language typology and syntactic description, vol. III: Grammatical categories and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 57-149.


I am a third-year PhD student in Phonetics at the Department of Philology, Literature and Linguistic, University of Pisa, Italy.

My topic of research is the maintenance of native speech features (both consonants and vowels) of Italian and dialects as heritage languages in Australia. Within my PhD project, I have gained expertise in Italian linguistics, Italian Dialectology, Language Contact, as well as in first, second and third Language Acquisition, to which I aim to apply quantitative experimental methods to assess variation at phonetic level.

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