LINGUIST List 32.2308

Wed Jul 07 2021

Review: Clinical Linguistics; Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition; Psycholinguistics: Rowland, Theakston, Ambridge, Twomey (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 31-Jan-2021
From: Yufei Ren <>
Subject: Current Perspectives on Child Language Acquisition
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Caroline F. Rowland
EDITOR: Anna L. Theakston
EDITOR: Ben Ambridge
EDITOR: Katherine E. Twomey
TITLE: Current Perspectives on Child Language Acquisition
SUBTITLE: How children use their environment to learn
SERIES TITLE: Trends in Language Acquisition Research 27
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Yufei Ren, Tsinghua University


The edited volume “Current Perspectives on Child Language Acquisition” is a collection of 13 chapters, with a Forward by Michael Tomasello, followed by an Introduction by the editors (Rowland, Caroline F.; Theakston, Anna L.; Ambridge, Ben; Twomey, Katherine E.). The volume, which is a festschrift dedicated to Elena Lieven in honor of her great contributions to child language acquisition, consists of two parts. The first part concerns child-environment interactions across different levels of acquisition, while the second part concerns variation across individuals, languages, and cultures in acquisition. These two themes are inspired by Lieven’s idea that “Firstly, mothers and children have conversations. Secondly, mother-child pairs differ markedly in how they talk to each other” (Lieven, 1978, p. 173).

The first section of the collection, which is on levels of acquisition, consists of seven chapters. The first chapter (“Learning how to communicate in infancy”, pp. 11-38), by Danielle Matthews, gives a brief review of prerequisites for infant communicative development and the different roles of mutual responsiveness in conversation between mother and infant. Infant preparedness for communication, as shown in attention distribution, equips them to become involved in face-to-face interaction and gain primary intersubjectivity. Gaze, joint attention, and communicative intention are illustrated as fundamentals for infants’ awareness of how communication works, while ample evidence from various experimental paradigms following each of the fundamentals are given.

Chapter 2, “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes: what developmental robotics can tell us about language acquisition” (pp. 39-64) by Katherine E. Twomey and Angelo Cangelosi, is a review of developmental robotic studies. As the title indicates, child language phenomena and acquisition are reexamined within the emerging field of development robotics. The authors first introduce the overall situation of child language research, most noticeable of which is its complexity and divergence of relevant hypotheses. Due to this, the importance of modelling and robotics are illustrated in terms of their testability and predictability. Major components in early language acquisition are then investigated from the perspective of developmental robotics, by directly implementing and manipulating theoretical variables in the model, in order to test and modify assumptions. Comparison between developmental robotics and children’s behavior may shed light on the underlying mechanisms of various components with regard to language acquisition, namely, gaze following, early vocalisations, noun learning, abstract concept learning, and simple syntax acquisition. The chapter ends with a brief conclusion.

Chapter 3, “Insights from Studying Statistical Learning”, pp. 65-90) bt Rebecca L.A. Frost and Padraic Monaghan, is a review of how statistical learning is applicable in investigating child language. It starts with presenting the overall debate between nativist and empiricist accounts of child language and moves on to new thoughts that can give insights to the problem. A currently new idea of statistical learning yields attention as it could account for experience-based learning; thus, it is then discussed in information distribution within related language learning situations. How distribution of information contributes to language learning theories is also illustrated, e.g., speech segmentation, computational modelling, morphology, semantic mapping, and syntactic categorization on the statistical principles of grouping and dividing. In addition to the internal linguistic structure, the external surroundings, i.e., the language learning situation, also contributes to components in language development. The conclusion of the paper is that statistical learning sheds light on the computations and developmental trajectory of language learning, with the combined perspective of information distribution and environmental cues.

The main topic of chapter 4, “From grammatical categories to processes of categorization: the acquisition of morphosyntax from a usage-based perspective” (pp. 91-112) by Heike Behrens, is categorization in language development. The author first points out that crucial problems in child language research are its base and goal, offering a brief introduction to the traditional generative and usage-based bottom-up accounts. She notes that traditional accounts could be ill-suited for certain problems, and that distributional patterns in input may play a role, among which the key factor is categorization. The mechanism and significance of categories and categorization are illustrated from a usage-based account. The major part is the three form-function mappings within conceptual development, namely, the categorization in conceptual development: representational redescription, learning inflectional categories with variation, and learning case markers for reference and syntactic role marking. The three scenarios show that form and function develop in tandem, and that bottom-up and top-down processes coalesce. Lastly, further studies are encouraged to look into phenomena such as case and determiners at a finer grade of individual variation, in interaction with other linguistic and non-linguistic features, including cultural and social differences, so as to reach the ultimate goal of understanding the underlying mechanisms of language development.

Chapter 5, “The retreat from transitive-causative overgeneralization errors: A review and diary study” (pp. 113-130) by Ben Ambridge and Chloe Ambridge, summarizes how children avoid overgeneralizing verb argument structure in transitive-causative constructions. A review of entrenchment, preemption, and verb-semantics hypotheses shows that these have gained support for children’s development of verb argument structure. Turning from experimental grammaticality judgment data to diary data, it is proposed that diary data may not conform to the above hypotheses. The point is that the communicative function in real interactions between children and their environment is crucial. In the diary data, the compatibility of verbs like ‘jump’ and ‘die’ with a particular argument structure lies in real-world event semantics, with its goal to fulfill communicative functions. The conclusion is that speakers store every utterance they hear, along with a highly nuanced representation of its understood semantics.

Chapter 6, “Where form meets meaning in the acquisition of grammatical constructions” (pp. 131-154) by Anna L. Theakston, focuses on the development of form-meaning mappings in children’s multiword utterances. The fundamental function of grammatical construction is first reviewed. Three kinds of grammatical errors are then examined as a window into children’s form-meaning mappings, which are “borrowings” within a construction network, developing slots in an insufficiently defined construction and combining elements in the linguistic repertoire creatively for communicative intention. For each error, detailed examples are provided. In addition, to understand the cues they use to assign meanings, the role of semantic and pragmatic principles is considered in children’s sentence representations. The author concludes by emphasizing her holistic perspective and by offering future research directions.

Chapter 7, by Silke Brandt, is entitled “Social cognitive and later language acquisition” (pp. 155-172). Brandt first points out that language acquisition interacts with Theory of Mind, but tells readers that the mechanisms are far from clear. Interactions between syntax, verbal semantics, and false beliefs, as well as their interaction from a cross-linguistic perspective with respect to language patterns and functions are articulated, suggesting the role of language-specific input patterns in acquisition.

The second part of the volume focuses on levels of variation in child language acquisition. Chapter 8, “The emergence of gesture during prelinguistic interaction” (pp. 173-188), puts forward a dynamic and interactive account of infant gestures. The author, Thea Cameron-Faulkner, begins with a discussion of joint attention and triadic attention, followed by a description of prelinguistic gesture development. To fully understand how and why gestures develop, theoretical perspectives and cultural differences are summarized.

In Chapter 9, “Individual differences in first language acquisition and their theoretical implications”, (pp. 189-220) by Evan Kidd, Amy Bidgood, Seamus Donnelly, Samantha Durrant, Michelle S. Peter, and Caroline F. Rowland, individual differences are highlighted in order to obtain crucial insights into the language acquisition process. The chapter is divided into three sections. Section One is a summary of how pervasive individual differences are in different aspects of language acquisition and how important they are in theory construction and societal terms. In Section Two, three causal factors are implicated to explain individual differences. These are: intrinsic differences in neurocognitive learning mechanisms, the child’s communicative environment, and developmental cascades. In Section Three, a case study of lexical processing efficiency illustrates the authors’ approach to individual differences. Hypotheses are made based on the effect that lexical development is associated with performance in looking-while-listening (LWL) tasks, while tested in psychometric modelling, and await further evidence to unravel the mystery of longitudinal variation. Finally, implications of the case study and limitations of the current body of work on individual differences are discussed.

Along with individual variation, Chapter 10, “Understanding the cross-linguistic pattern of verb-marking error in typically developing children and children with Developmental Language Disorder: Why the input matters” (pp. 221-246) by Julian M. Pine, Daniel Freudenthal, and Fernand Gobet, examines how cross-linguistic input patterns could explain Optional Infinitive (OI) errors. This chapter first introduces verb-marking errors in the OI stage. As the bulk of this research is conducted within the generativist tradition, the authors consider the most popular generativist account, namely, Wexler’s Unique Checking Constraint (UCC) approach. They then compare an alternative input-driven account. To test theories, modelling is based on cross-linguistic differences in children’s rate of OI errors, the modal reference effect, the eventivity constraint, and different constructions, all within a computational model of language learning (MOSAIC). Next, a comparison is made between MOSAIC and the Variation Learning Model, where the latter embodies a valuable advantage of input-driven accounts: its gradeability in quantitative variation. The two models are illuminating but cannot handle all variation in OI errors, something which is especially a problem in learning English. The last piece of evidence for the input-driven model comes from verb-marking errors in children with Developmental Language Disorders (DLD). The chapter ends with the conclusion that input-driven accounts of OI are superior to generativist accounts, thus, attention to semantic-distributional properties of language input is essential.

In view of the fact that current studies on cross-linguistic accounts are necessary yet problematic in language sampling, in Chapter 11, “Sampling linguistic diversity to understand language development” (pp. 247-262), Sabine Stoll suggests a maximal diversity approach to sampling bias. The importance of a coherent theory of linguistic sampling is briefly illustrated with regard to linguistic and cultural diversity. With the desperate need for a systematic sampling theory, the author gives reasons to adopt a maximum diversity approach to sampling (Stoll and Bickel, 2013) in comparison to other sampling methods. Further details are given in favor of the maximal diversity approach; Stoll advances input universals and supports her model through variation sets, word patterns, and frequent frames. The conclusion to this chapter, which emphasizes a new and systematic comparative approach, is an overview of the status quo in cross-linguistic research.

In chapter 12, “Lessons from studying language development in bilingual children” (pp. 263-286) by Ludovica Serratrice, looks into how bilinguals could unfold the mechanisms of language development. The chapter begins with a brief introduction of the significance of studying bilinguals and moves on to an overview of some key factors related to bilingual studies, since variation exists in areas such as personal experience and social context. To show how bilinguals might manifest the underlying mechanisms of language development in relation to input, three areas are taken into account. First, bilinguals address the link between language exposure and relative lexical processing efficiency in lexical acquisition. Second, mutual exclusivity of bilinguals is highlighted as its interaction among pragmatics, processing skills, and vocabulary size in lexical learning. Third, bilinguals’ syntactic representations are explored. Finally, the author concludes by drawing attention to the complexity of bilingual studies.

Chapter 13, “Language disorders and autism: implications for usage-based theories of language development” (pp. 287-322), is the final chapter in the volume. In it, Kirsten Abbot-Smith provides evidence to support usage-based theories. The take home message is that children’s inherent ability for joint intentionality and statistical learning, in combination with characteristics of language input, accounts for their language development. Evidence from DLD and Autism is adduced to support usage-based accounts. First, theories of language development are introduced, mainly the essential mechanisms underpinning usage-based theory. Next, the definition and properties of two specific language neuro-developmental disorders are discussed, i.e., DLD and Autism. As test reliability is unsolved in DLD, more investigations are conducted on autism, concerning statistical learning, the role of language input, shared intentionality, joint attention, and collaboration. Abbot-Smith concludes the chapter with a brief summary of evidence from neuro-developmental disorders and future directions for undetermined issues.


This volume is of great benefit to child language acquisition scholars, especially from the usage-based perspective. The greatest strength of this volume is that it covers almost all emerging issues in child language acquisition, informing readers about the overall academic picture. The two parts, i.e., levels of acquisition and levels of variation, present a clear and comprehensive description of child language development and its possible underlying mechanisms. It is appropriate for both students and teachers in this field, as well as for parents who are curious about child language. Other readers, interested in psychology, linguistics, neurology, or computational modelling, may find interesting topics among these chapters.

The volume covers a wide range of topics in the field of child language acquisition. Each chapter primarily deals with a particular aspect of language acquisition; thus, the review equips readers with the development of research on a given topic and its experimental paradigm. Debates and limitations are also mentioned in various chapters, such as the debate in Chapter 4 between advocates of nativist and usage-based accounts and the limitations of each account in explaining different linguistic aspects. Although UG has gained wide popularity and can successfully account for some facts, one of the most outstanding drawbacks of UG-based accounts is their weakness in explaining typological differences and how parameter settings change over time. Luckily, probabilistic and cue-based models, as discussed in this volume, include non-linguistic factors which might enlighten readers from a different perspective. As a matter of fact, the current question in the field is not if language acquisition begins with some innate ability; rather, the debate concerns the nature of this knowledge and the extent of its contribution across development (Twomey, K. E. and Cangelosi, A., p. 41). These topics are what future work could be aimed at, leaving room for further study.

The book’s rich content, remarkable debates, and promising guidance would not be possible without its tolerant attitude toward research. The whole volume exhibits an open and considerate attitude, making child language development more comprehensive, and thus, impressive. Not only linguistic aspects such as morphosyntax (Chapter 4) and transitive-causative constructions (Chapter 5) are discussed, but non-linguistic factors such as statistical learning (Chapter 3) and gestures (Chapter 8) are reviewed. Statistical learning touches both linguistic and non-linguistic factors to account for language learning. Statistical learning posits that learners can perform powerful computations over the distribution of information in a given input, which can help them discern precisely how that input is structured and how it operates (Frost and Monaghan, p. 65). Consequently, it is convincing that children rely more on situational cues for understanding linguistic words and utterances.

The volume clearly shows that not only commonality and universality are significant in unraveling the mechanism of child language development, but variations in individuals, cultures, and languages are taken into account. The concept of degree is emphasized for future study, which means that development is a gradual and continuous process. In addition, it shows readers how studies on language development could be facilitated by a systematic sampling approach tested in computer modelling. It is quite clear that language development is a cross-disciplinary issue. The complicated, dynamic, and interactive features of language call for coordination in order to disentangle the mystery of child language development.

The volume’s two parts and the chapters in each part are basically well-organized. At the beginning of each chapter, the author(s) talk about Lieven’s generosity, kindness, and amazing contributions to the field, reflecting a positive atmosphere of how academia should and could be. At the end of each chapter, a summary and future guidance are provided as well. Several chapters are coherently and cohesively organized with specific subtitles. The goal of the review is certainly achieved by delineating developmental robotics within a broad view of child language acquisition, exemplifying how it deals with essential components in language acquisition. Developmental robotics is inspiring in that it could test hypotheses about language beyond purely linguistic factors, such as proprioceptive input. The embodied property of human language is testified in robotics so as to give a refreshing perspective on the long-standing debate between UG and usage-based theories of child language acquisition. Chapter 5 seems to be indirect and less clear-cut compared to other chapters.

As all of the chapters are written by Lieven’s current or former doctoral students, they each focus on a different topic and employ a different writing style. Though various topics are discussed and reviewed, there is still an undeniable overlap among key mechanisms and hypotheses in the different chapters. One potential problem is that, without sufficient background knowledge, it might be difficult for the reader to map pieces of the chapters together to obtain a coherent picture. Chapter 1, for example, is informative as a rich supporting experiment, and phenomena are illustrated as details of infants’ early interaction with adults. However, the logic of relatedness between essential concepts such as gaze, joint attention, and intention is unclear. Without the larger picture of an inner connection between theories, the reader’s attention may go astray with abundant details. It is only in Chapter 13 that a brief introduction to shared intentionality and joint attentional frames is provided by a different author. It would have been beneficial to readers if concepts discussed in a chapter were first explained, or if the chapters with similar topics/issues had been brought together in a bundle.

The division of the volume could be more reasonable. Levels of acquisition (Part One) and levels of variation (Part Two) are the guiding themes throughout all the chapters. That is to say, every chapter looks into specific levels of acquisition under the framework of the two parts, be it from the perspective of the lexicon, semantics, or syntax, and discussion for further direction is offered. In the first part of the volume, the chapters are also concerned with variation in acquisition. Likewise, the chapters in the second part explore specific levels of language acquisition as well. To some extent, this approach shows the importance of both commonality and variation within different levels of acquisition for the investigation of the human mind. Meanwhile, it may leave the impression of overlap between the two separate parts covering different topics.

Overall, the volume achieves two important aims. On the one hand, a tribute is paid to the scholarship of Elena Lieven, in whose honor this volume is compiled. The two main parts of the volume are based on Lieven’s ideas, and the chapters in each part are written by her (current or former) doctoral students. The authors of each chapter express great appreciation to Lieven for her great generality in all aspects, both personal and academic. Readers will get to know this brilliant scientist and her excellent research into child language acquisition from a usage-based account. On the other hand, this volume is remarkable in providing readers with the necessary knowledge to understand the past, present, and future of the vast field of child language acquisition from a usage-based perspective. As the title of this volume shows, it informs how children may use their environment to learn. It is the interaction between children and their various learning contexts that leads to their development. Its rich content covers wide topics in child language acquisition and contributes to our understanding of the overall development in language acquisition.


Frost, R.L.A., and Monaghan, P. (2020). Insights from Studying Statistical Learning. In Rowland, C.F. and Theakston, A.L. (eds.). “Current Perspectives on Child Language Acquisition: How children use their environment to learn”.

Lieven, E. V. (1978). Conversations between mothers and young children: Individual differences and their possible implications for the study of language learning. In N. Waterson and C. Snow (Eds.), “The development of communication: Social and pragmatic factors in language acquisition” (pp. 173–187). New York, NY: Wiley and Sons.

Stoll, S., and Bickel, B. (2013). Capturing diversity in language acquisition research. In B. Bickel, L. A. Grenoble, D. A. Peterson, and A. Timberlake (Eds.), “Language typology and historical contingency: Studies in honor of Johanna Nichols”(pp. 195–260). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Twomey, K. E. and Cangelosi, A. (2020). Heads, shoulders, knees and toes: what developmental robotics can tell us about language acquisition. In Rowland, C.F. and Theakston, A.L. (eds.). “Current Perspectives on Child Language Acquisition: How children use their environment to learn”.


Yufei Ren is currently a PhD student in Linguistics at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. She would like to find out the algorithm functioning in mind when people are making categorization and judgments especially related to words and language. Her main research interests include psycholinguistics, language acquisition, and neurolinguistics. Gang Cui is a Professor at the Department of Foreign Language, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. His research interests are cognitive linguistics and neurolinguistics.

Page Updated: 07-Jul-2021