EDITORS: Caunt-Nulton, Heather; Kulatilake, Samantha; Woo, I-hao
TITLE: Proceedings of the 31st Annual Boston University Conference on Language
PUBLISHER: Cascadilla Press
Phaedra Royle, Université de Montréal, CHU Sainte-Justine, CRLMB
These two volumes contain sixty of the papers presented at the 31st Annual
Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD) held November 3-5,
2006. The BUCLD conference, run by students in the Program in Applied
Linguistics at Boston University, attracts papers on ''theoretical approaches to
language acquisition, cross-cultural language development, second language
development, language disorders, and literacy development.'' Papers come from
leading researchers all over the world as well as emerging new researchers and
represent a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study
of language acquisition.
Linguists and psycholinguists, speech-language pathologists and others
interested in the development of phonology, morphology, and semantics, in
monolingual, bilingual and language-disordered populations, will find a wide
variety of research articles in these volumes. Due to the number of papers
presented at this conference, only the keynote speaker's and plenary talk's
papers are overviewed, in addition to other papers that were of particular
interest to me. Because of space limitations, little theoretical aspects are
presented here. Interested readers are encouraged to read the original texts for
a more in depth understanding.
The first paper is the keynote address by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy
Hirsh-Pasek entitled Language Development: The View from the Radical Middle.
This paper discusses a model developed by the authors, the Emergentist Coalition
Model, ''a hybrid developmental model describing the factors involved in lexical
acquisition and how the importance of those factors might change over time''(p.
1). The model incorporates elements from previous models in order to account for
the dynamics and changes in language acquisition processes observed by the
authors during their research. In particular, the authors focus on perceptual,
pragmatic and constraint-based theories of learning.
The second paper is the plenary address by Jürgen M. Meisel entitled ''On
Autonomous Syntactic Development in Multiple First Language Acquisition''. This
paper presents evidence in favour of the Autonomous Development Hypothesis,
according to which multiple grammars develop independently in bilingual children
and that the development of these grammars follows a similar track to that of
monolingual children. The discussion addresses a number of theoretical points -
what is interdependence?, what is autonomy? - and presents empirical data
relevant to these questions. Meisel concludes that, in general, grammatical
systems develop without cross-linguistic interaction and that in the few cases
where we do observe effects of interaction across grammars; these are not
consistent across children and that differences observed in bilinguals are
quantitative rather than qualitative as compared to monolinguals.
Of the other fifty-eight articles/chapters in the collection - covering topics
running the gamut of theoretical and methodological approaches to research on
language acquisition, a number were of specific interest to me and are described
Babyonyshev et al. (pp. 58-69) present a paper entitled ''Discourse-Based
Movement Operations in Russian-Speaking Children with SLI''. This research
involves an elicitation task evaluating Russian-Speaking children's sensitivity
to optional A'-movement related to (in)definiteness in Russian. Russian uses
optional A'-movement in conjunction with demonstratives to express definiteness.
This feature of the language is optionally used for topic-focus and is thus
considered to be a pragmatic function. The authors investigate the ability to
repeat structures with optional A'-movement in children with and without
specific language impairment (SLI). The data indicate that Russian-speaking
children with SLI have more difficulties with these structures than controls,
thus showing that optional movement (at least in these structures) is difficult
for children with SLI.
Conwell and Morgan (pp. 117-128) present data on noun-verb disambiguation in
English acquisition. This study combines parental (maternal) use data, child
language production data and child perception data all geared towards
understanding the disambiguation of homophonous ''ambicategorical'' words in
English (e.g., _walk_). Data presented show that parents use ambiguous words in
their interactions with their children, that children - and to a lesser extent
than adults - use ambiguous words in their corpora, but that children are also
sensitive to subtle acoustic differences between these words used in different
syntactic frames, and thus might use this information to disambiguate them. It
is unfortunate, however, that the authors did not include the distinction
between semantically related words (e.g., _walk_) and unrelated words (e.g.,
_fly_) in their analysis, to verify whether children (and adults) treated these
different ambicategorical types differently.
Demuth et al. (pp. 196-205) present a study of determiner production in the
context of prosodic licensing in children acquiring English. Corpora for 5
children aged 1-2 are studied for determiner omission and production contexts.
They find that the production of early determiners is dependant on the prosodic
structure of the utterance, more specifically the possibility to integrate the
determiner into a foot, in all but one child. The child who did not wholly
conform to this pattern until the age of 2 years, showed no 'preference' for
footed versus unfooted contexts (however, her production of determiners was
quite high). An acoustic analysis of this child's data indicates that she
initially produces determiners with stress and that these are resyllabified in
footed positions by age 2 years.
Gonnerman (pp. 251-261) presents data on infants' sensitivity to derivational
suffixes in an experimental setting using the Preferential Looking Paradigm.
Data show that children aged 23 months are sensitive to the structure of novel
words ending in what seem to be derivational suffixes. This article is notable
for containing the most unexpected sentence in the book: ''An additional [...
child was] excluded from the study [... because] the experimenter [was] stung
several times by a bee while escorting the infant and caregiver into the building.''
Hamman et al. (pp. 286-297) present data on complex syntactic structures in
French-speaking children (aged 6 – 16) from spontaneous speech corpora. The
focus of the article is to describe what types of embedded structures are
present and whether the structures are grammatical or not. Results show lower
levels of production of complex structures in children with SLI than controls
and higher levels of errors on these structures. The (teen-aged) participants
SLI who showed the lowest levels of error on complex structures also showed
evidence of avoidance strategies, as they produced very low percentages of
Hestvik et al. (pp. 310-320) study gap-filling comprehension in children with
SLI, using sentences of the type ''the zebra that the hippo on the hill had
kissed on the nose ran far away''. Using an auditory presentation mode, they
elicited children's reactions to probes presented at the onset of the trace of
moved NPs. The probes were either related to a word already heard in the
sentence (e.g., zebra, hippo) or unrelated and were presented in base position
or at gap position (e.g., zebra at 'zebra' or after 'kissed'). Results show that
children without language impairment are significantly faster at processing
primed images in trace positions, as compared to unrelated words and base
positions. Children with language impairment do not show this specific effect,
while performing similarly to controls elsewhere.
Kallestinova (pp. 333-344) presents Russian acquisition data on unaccusatives
and unergatives as evidenced by locative inversion constructions, such as ''The
boy ran down the hill ~ down the hill rolled the boy'', which can be used with
unaccusatives but not unergatives. The study used elicited production of picture
descriptions to verify whether children distinguish the two types of verbs and
whether they were sensitive to their different theta-role/syntactic properties.
Adult and children groups were all sensitive to the distinction between the two
types of verbs. However, differences were observed between the 3-year-olds and
the 6-year-olds in that no significant differences were found between
word-orders produced for unaccusatives and unergatives. Results are interpreted
as signalling an overregularization of the transitive/unergative structure for
Legendre et al. (pp. 370-381) present results from three studies involving the
acquisition of subject verb agreement in French. The first reports on a
French-CDI questionnaire regarding the comprehension and production of clitic
pronouns in children aged 24 and 30 months. Results show that by 30 months, most
children comprehend all clitics in the questionnaire while approximately half of
the children also use them all. In a second study using a preferential looking
paradigm, the authors assessed sensitivity to liaison, a morphophonological
process signalling agreement in person and number on the verb and occurring with
3p plural clitics (ex. ils arrivent [ilzariv], the liaison being the
pronunciation of the [z] before a verb with a vowel onset). French-speaking
children aged 30 months seemed to show sensitivity to verb agreement in this
form. A spontaneous speech corpus was analyzed for use of verb forms with
liaison by parents and children. Data show that these are quite rare and only
used by parents thus indicating the statistical learning cannot account for
children's ability to process these. Finally, an elicitation task using toys and
prompting obtained speech samples from children aged 24 and 30 months. The
24-month-olds were generally unable to do the task and the 30-month-olds were
able to reliably produce only the first and second singular forms.
Nadig and colleagues (pp. 451-461) discuss autistic children's ability to
process differences between adult-directed and infant-directed speech. They use
a preferential looking paradigm with children (aged 6 months) at risk for
developing autism. They found that half of the 15 at risk children showed a
preference for adult directed speech, while the other half preferred infant
directed speech (motherese). No control child (n=8) preferred adult directed
speech. Results correlated marginally with expressive language scores.
Paradis et al. (pp. 497-507) study the acquisition of tense in 12 French-English
bilinguals from Canada aged 4;0 to 5;5. Children were divided into two dominance
groups and compared with monolinguals on their ability to produce elicited past
tense on regular and irregular verbs. All children performed better on regulars
versus irregulars. Bilingual groups performed differently from each other in the
two languages. Bilinguals showed effects of language dominance in that they
performed similarly on regular verbs as their monolingual peers speaking their
dominant language. They also performed similarly on irregular verbs when
overregularizations were computed. Only for English-dominant bilinguals
performed differently from their monolingual peers on irregular verbs, while
French-dominant bilinguals scored as well on irregulars as their monolingual
peers. Thus bilingualism does not seem to create a lag in abilities, even when
considering lexically stored forms.
Rasinger (pp. 532-542) focuses his inquiry on age of onset versus exposure
length in the critical period debate. He studies Bagladeshi learners of English
from East London, with highly varying age of first exposure (AoA) to English and
length of residence (LoR). Measures of attainment on a number of tasks
(standardized tasks and a modified MLU measure) are correlated with age of
exposure and years of experience. LoR shows the most robust correlations with
results. Because AoA and LoR were correlated with each other, partial
regressions were performed. These showed that when controlling for LoR, AoA
showed no correlation with results, while controlling for AoA did not eliminate
Swensen et al. (pp. 609-619) study the effect of maternal linguistic input on
the language of children with autism. They show that maternal expansions and the
use of yes-no questions can positively affect the development of complex syntax
in children with autism, but that these effects are delayed in comparison to
those found for younger controls.
Varlokosta & Joffe (pp. 656-667) present data on past tense and plural
production in children with Williams Syndrome (WS). They present data on a large
cohort (N = 30) of children with WS with a large age range (4.6 to 44.3).
Controls were on average younger and had lower mental ages than participants
with WS. Measures for past tense and plural production, comprehension, and
repetition were elicited. Scores were also obtained on standardized vocabulary
and grammar comprehension and production tasks. Overall, results show similar
abilities in both groups, to do the experimental tasks, while measures on
standardized tasks were lower in the WS versus control groups. Children with WS
were generally better on regular versus irregular forms in production.
Many more papers are presented in the volume, dealing with a large array of
inquiry from theoretical syntax to computational modeling of language
acquisition and processing. In addition, many language are touched upon,
including Japanese, German, French, Russian, Spanish, Xhosa, bilingualism and L2
with a variety of linguistic profiles, sign languages and the 'language' of music.
The methodological approaches and theoretical assumptions are quite varied in
the papers, thus making the papers extremely variable in their scope, and
coherence with the rest of the volume. They are written as 'stand-alone'' papers,
and thus the reading of a given paper does not oblige the reader to read others.
The most interesting aspect of these is that they report on very recent
research, which is often not yet available elsewhere. However, the quality the
chapters are quite variable, with some research still ongoing, some
methodologies questionable, or theoretical assumptions not explicit. However, in
general, the quality of the papers was quite high, with clearly presented
theoretical assumptions, methodologies and results. Considering the short length
of the papers (approximately 10 pages) this is quite a feat.
The editing job on these volumes might be humungous, but there remains too much
variability between papers in terms of language quality, typos, reference style,
and so on. In particular, looking up references is very frustrating for the
reader, as many citations are to conference presentations that are not in print.
The editors might eventually want to impose on authors to only cite articles of
manuscripts that are readily available (on personal websites, for example), or
to ask the authors to make them available if they wish to cite them. A
principled distinction could also be made between printed references and those
referring to talks or papers presented at conferences (these could be presented
as footnotes only).
The papers in these volumes are directed at researchers and graduate students in
language acquisition and language learning. Because of the short length of the
articles, a strong background is necessary to be able to appreciate their
contents. However, undergraduates could also benefit from these readings,
especially if put in the context of other readings providing more context for
the understanding of theoretical and methodological issues. Their short length
also allows these articles to be used as discussion papers in seminars and for
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université de Montréal and
pursued postdoctoral studies at the School of Communication Sciences and
Disorders at McGill University. She holds a teaching position at the School of
Speech Language Pathology and Audiology at the Université de Montréal, has a
research lab at the CHU Sainte-Justine and is a member of the Centre for
Research on Language, Mind and Brain. Her research interests lie in
psycholinguistics, language disorders (specific language impairment), language
acquisition and morphology.