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Review of  Rich Languages From Poor Inputs

Reviewer: Melissa Whatley
Book Title: Rich Languages From Poor Inputs
Book Author: Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini Robert C. Berwick
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 24.1931

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The book under review is an edited volume, divided into three parts. The first 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 reading abilities. The volume is a product of a workshop at MIT with the same title which was dedicated to Carol Chomsky, and the influence of her work is obvious throughout the book. In the introduction, Chapter 1, the editors survey the three sections, outline their purposes, and give a summary of each chapter.

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

Chapter 3, written by Xuan-Nga Cao Kam and Janet Dean Fodor, replicates the bi- and tri-gram experiments just mentioned in an attempt to account for POS. These experiments investigate polar interrogatives containing relative clauses. The original experiments (Reali & Christiansen 2003, 2005) find that a bigram model using transitional probabilities between words in child-directed speech enables the model to make correct grammaticality judgments 96% of the time. Kam and Fodor replicate these experiments, pointing out that in the original investigations, and in their own replication, it is only the bigram [who\that is] that enables the model to select the correct sentences. Without these bigrams the model needs phrase-structure information and information about ill-formed relative clauses in order make minimal errors in grammaticality judgments. The authors conclude that mere statistical information about possible word strings cannot substitute for syntactic knowledge, and that learners are able to project phrase-structure information onto strings of words.

The fourth chapter, by Noam Chomsky, is based on the idea that, while linear order appears to be a logical way of explaining sentence structure, linguists must entertain the idea that other explanations of empirical data are better at accounting for POS problems. Chomsky discusses the structure dependency of the surface forms of polar interrogatives and argues that syntactic objects must be labeled in order for the computational system to produce the correct surface string of words. This chapter concludes that other POS problems must be resolved in similar ways. Investigators must provide principled explanations of syntactic phenomena rather than simply descriptive observations.

In the fifth chapter, Susan Curtiss summarizes recent studies on modularity in the 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 Big Modularity (BMod) and the other with Little Modularity (LMod). BMod treats grammar as a domain-specific mental faculty while LMod treats language as an entity comprised of distinct submodules that develop and function independently from one another. Throughout, Curtiss reviews studies on both normally developing children and children with developmental anomalies, as well as studies on adults with various conditions, such as aphasia and dementia, that point towards a modular model of the mind. Curtiss concludes that, in spite of its recent decline in popularity, this model is the correct one for investigating the mind.

Chapter six, the last in Part I, is by Lila Gleitman and Barbara Landau and examines two specific issues that emerge from Carol Chomsky’s work: the variability in learners’ access to input and the abilities of children to reconstruct sentence meaning even when structure is covert. The chapter outlines Carol Chomsky’s studies of blind children acquiring lexical items that refer to sight as well as her studies of children’s acquisition of phrases containing a covert infinitival subject versus those with an overt subject (This doll is hard to see vs. This doll is eager to see), the latter being acquired much earlier. Children appear to exploit the semantic context of an utterance in order to correctly interpret the subject of the first sentence as being someone besides ‘the doll’. Further evidence of the way children exploit their environments to acquire language is exemplified by the Home Signs of deaf children with hearing parents. The authors conclude that language develops from multiple cues in children’s surroundings rather than simply 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 language acquisition with the goal of bringing cognitive science and theoretical linguistics together. The authors are of the opinion that these fields have much to learn from one another in spite of the fact that they have often ignored and misrepresented each other. The studies outlined indicate that children are sensitive to frequencies and perceptual differences, concepts explored in cognitive science research, in the input that they receive. Frequency information is later used to divide input into categories that they then exploit for different functions, ideas explored in theoretical linguistics. The authors conclude that language acquisition consists of an initial stage of core representations, triggered by perceptual and distributional properties of the input, which are later enriched by parameter settings and yield adult grammars.

In chapter 8, Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi explore the concept of intervention and its application to language acquisition. The main concept explored is that the intervention of a syntactic object in a chain of syntactic objects with similar structural properties initially blocks the interpretation that the two linked objects are, in fact, connected. This concept is illustrated in sentences containing object relatives, such as ‘Show me 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 for children. The authors outline syntactic processes involved in the formation of the passive that appear to be active in object relative constructions as well. The principal syntactic process explored here is smuggling, a process through which multiple syntactic arguments are moved as a chunk. In later stages of development, intervention effects are voided by the adoption of these processes, thus yielding the adult version of grammar.

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

In chapter 10, Ken Wexler examines tough-movement developmental delay. This phenomenon, first pointed out by Carol Chomsky, is that children have trouble interpreting the subject of ‘to see’ in sentences such as ‘The doll is hard to see’ as an entity other than ‘the doll’ until more advanced stages of syntactic development. Wexler develops an explanation of this phenomenon using the Universal Phrase Requirement, which restricts the computation needed to process a sentence and analyses it in phases from the bottom up. In adult grammar, an NP such as ‘the doll’, which is generated in object position, can move to IP, while in child grammar, it cannot. This difference is due to the fact that children initially block the movement of ‘the doll’ to IP because their grammar has more phases than adult grammar. Wexler further supports his analysis 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 the Tolerance Principle, that is, that language learners will be able to tolerate a certain number of exceptions to linguistic generalizations before resorting to analyzing each individual item as its own entity. They apply this principle to the acquisition of English metrical stress, a complicated, exception-ridden system. Using frequency information from a corpus of child-directed speech, they find that learners may initially opt for a system which later drops below the productivity threshold. With more input learners are able to extract certain patterns that aid acquisition.

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

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

In Chapter 14, Stephanie Gottwald and Maryanne Wolf outline Carol Chomsky’s work on the relationship between language development and exposure to reading material, which indicates that a child’s linguistic development is closely related to the quantity and complexity of the reading material to which he/she is exposed. The bulk of this chapter focuses on the various components that contribute to fluent reading, such as letter patterns, knowledge of grammatical patterns, and the use of language in social contexts. Gottwald and Wolf present a study using RAVE-O intervention, a reading program designed to teach readers how to retrieve the sources needed for reading fluency quickly. Results indicate that RAVE-O is superior to other interventions as far as word attack and word identification are concerned, and is comparable in all other studied areas, regardless of students’ socioeconomic class, race, or IQ. The authors conclude with a call for more research into the connection between 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 author asserts that the precision that is present in invented spellings shows an awareness of phonetic detail that is beyond that of most adults. The chapter lists patterns of invented spelling for both consonant and vowel sounds and concludes with a discussion of the transition English-speaking children must make from representing language phonetically to representing it morphophonemically.

In Chapter 16 Merryl Goldberg connects children’s invented spelling, seen as evidence of their creativity, with the arts. The chapter emphasizes the use of the 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 the creativity of invented spelling with arts education, viewing invented spellings as acts of creativity. The latter part of the chapter outlines the author’s concerns for education, which overlap considerably with Carol Chomsky’s and her students’ description of the way children learn and develop. The chapter concludes with the idea that the integration of the arts and creativity in curriculum encourages risk-taking and can give children a sense of 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 research participants who have learned to communicate using the Tadoma method, a tactile manner of language acquisition. Chomsky’s subjects perform either at or above average for hearing individuals on almost all of the tests administered, the notable exception being use of rising intonation for questions. Chomsky’s main conclusion is that tactile perception of speech is enough for language development to occur -- language development occurs even under conditions of extreme poverty of the stimulus.

The field of language acquisition, especially second language acquisition, has recently been inundated with a plethora of theoretical models that question the validity of cognitive approaches to language learning (see Atkinson, 2011 for a review). These models force us to examine critically concepts that were previously taken for granted in acquisition, such as the idealized language that is meant to be the target for learners, the purely cognitive nature of language, and, essential to this review, poverty of the stimulus (Atkinson, 2002). While the themes in the book are firmly rooted in cognitivist approaches to language acquisition that recent models of acquisition claim to be against, the incorporation of ideas beyond those of a traditional cognitivist approach to language acquisition, such as the incorporation of context 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 language acquisition in the future.

The third part of the book offers a much-desired connection between theoretical linguistics and its practical application to language learning; however, the connection between this part and the syntax actually discussed in the first two parts is weak at times. The discussion of invented spelling, for example, appears to connect better with theories of phonology rather than syntax. In addition to the lack of a link between the discussion of invented spelling in the third part and the syntactic theories outlined in the first two sections, the inclusion of a chapter comparing Basque and English adult grammars in Chapter 9 feels somewhat out of place in a section dedicated to the 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 of the state of current POS research and offers great insight into POS problems currently under investigation in the field of language acquisition.

Atkinson, D. (Ed.). (2011). Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. New York: Routledge.

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

Beckner, C. et al. (2009) Language is a complex adaptive system: Position Paper [The ''Five Graces Group'']. In N. C. Ellis & D. Larsen-Freeman (Eds.), Language as a Complex Adaptive System (pp. 1 - 26). University of Michigan Language 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 second language acquisition (pp. 216 - 236). New York: Routledge.
Melissa Whatley is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Her research interests include second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, and syntax.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199590339
Pages: 336
Prices: U.K. £ 60.00