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Review of  The Language of Children

Reviewer: Despina Papadopoulou
Book Title: The Language of Children
Book Author: Julia Gillen
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 15.725

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Date: Fri, 27 Feb 2004 14:52:58 +0200
From: Dr. Despina Papadopoulou
Subject: The Language of Children

AUTHOR: Gillen, Julia
TITLE: The Language of Children
SERIES: Intertext
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2003

Despina Papadopoulou, Cyprus College

Julia Gillen's book "The Language of Children" is part of the Inter-
text series, whose aim is to provide students with accessible textbooks
on text analysis, and is mainly addressed to students who have an
interest on language and communication. Gillen's main purpose is to
describe the written as well as the spoken language children use to
communicate and express themselves. In doing so she adopts a
sociocultural perspective and tries to explain the children's
productions in terms of their interaction with the socio-cultural

The contents of the book are divided into six units. The author also
provides ideas about projects that the students could carry on in the
future, suggestions for further reading and an index of the main terms
used in the book along with their definitions. The first unit sketches
the aim of the book, which is to familiarize the students with the
language used by children. Gillen specifies that she will focus on the
communicative practices and the diversity of children's language.
Moreover, the author makes it clear that she will depart from the
nativist view on first language acquisition, because she considers it
simplistic in that it ignores the socio-cultural effects on the
children's language. The author also provides a number of speech
samples from either monolingual or bilingual children in naturalistic
contexts in order to show that children are able to detect language
parts that contribute to the communication, like openings and endings.

Unit two is concerned with two topics: the description of some
properties of the written language produced by children and, the
multimodality in children's attempts to communicate. With respect to
the first topic, Gillen observes that the children's writing abilities
evolve gradually and are affected by socio-cultural perspectives. In
addition, even very young children seem to be aware of some conventions
about the presentation of written texts, like the positioning of the
title at the beginning of the text. Moreover, the children's written
texts show awareness of the existence of various genres and some kind
of understanding of the techniques used in those genres, for example in
narratives. With respect to the issue of multimodality, Gillen shows
how children use images together with words in order to make their
messages better understood.

In the third unit, Gillen explores the importance of play for child
speech. The author provides many spontaneous speech samples along with
descriptions of the contextual circumstances, in which the speech
samples were produced, in order to show the effect of both the play and
the communicative event on child speech. By analysing all those speech
samples, which involve sociodramatic play among children, Gillen draws
the conclusion that very early in life children display features of
communicative competence, like awareness of openings, closings and
turn-takings in conversations.

The fourth unit explores certain characteristics of the early words
children produce and the way kids learn new words. With respect to the
way early words are pronounced, Gillen points out that pronunciation is
simplified and that children tend to use syllabic reduplications. In
addition, children use words to express particular kinds of
interactions and they often use one word in order to denote the meaning
of a whole phrase or even sentence (holophrastic utterance).
Underextension - that children might not be able to extend the use of a
particular word to a similar set of objects - and overextension - that
they might erroneously assume that a word applies to all objects of the
same category - also illustrate two properties of the child early
vocabulary. Gillen notices two factors that help word learning:
cultural relatedness and repetition. The social sense of memory, that
is the associations formed between certain words and their cultural and
social meanings, also plays an important role in word learning.
Furthermore, social language routines, like greetings, or rhymes help
children acquire new words. In contrast, Gillen emphasizes that the
"object-point-label" has been overestimated and it is not sufficient to
account for the way children acquire vocabulary.

In unit five, Gillen describes the early communication development in
infants before language emerges. Gillen provides the stages the
children go through (i. e. cooing, vocal play, babbling) before they
start producing word combinations. The author points out that infants
are able to recognize phonemes of their language and that they have an
innate predisposition towards turn-taking. She also stresses the fact
that early interactions with children are important and encourage
children to produce speech.

In the sixth unit, the author presents three theories for first
language acquisition, namely the sociocultural, cognitivist and
nativist theories. The sociocultural approach to language development
assumes that children are genetically predisposed to communicate with
others, that sociocultural factors are important in language
acquisition and that children are active learners, in the sense that
"they organize their own learning" (Gillen, 2003: 80). Gillen also
refers to Vygotsky's work on child language, which gives emphasis on
the important role of culture in language acquisition and the way
"children learn through observing, interpreting and participating in
social practices" (Gillen, 2003: 85). In addition, Vygotsky paid
attention to children's private speech and considered it as being an
instrument of solving problems.

According to Vygotsky, this "egocentric" speech of children is social
from the very beginning, in that it is influenced by the surrounding
conditions and it is often addressed to an audience, and later on in
life leads to inner speech. Cognitivists also recognize that an
essential part in language learning is what they call "discovery
learning" and, following Jean Piaget, their aim is to explore the
relationships between cognitive and language development. On the other
hand, the nativist view on language acquisition supports that the input
children are exposed to is not always grammatical or complete and,
therefore, children must be equipped with a device that helps them
acquire language. Based on Chomsky's idea about the existence of
universal properties across different languages, researchers working in
this framework assume that in their attempt to acquire their native
languages children are aided by a language acquisition device, which
incorporates the principles and the parameters of human languages. The
environment they are exposed to triggers the operation of the language
acquisition device and the adjustment of the Universal Grammar to the
grammatical properties of their native language.

"The Language of Children" is a reader-friendly and accessible book,
which provides the reader with an introduction to the language used by
children. One of the advantages of this textbook is that it contains
many spontaneous samples of child language, either written or oral,
which helps the reader to actually see how child language looks like
and make his/her own observations. In addition, the samples are
presented in a clear way, in that the symbols used in the
transcriptions are adequately explained and in that the context, in
which the utterances were produced, is always provided, which helps the
reader to form a clearer picture of the properties of the child
language. Furthermore, another merit of this textbook is that each unit
consists of several activities, which make the students not only think
about certain issues relevant to child language development but also
encourage them to analyze the samples provided and arrive at their own

I would like to raise, however, two points: one is concerned with the
way children acquire words and the second one is related to the
theories for first language acquisition. In unit 4, in which Gillen
discusses the properties of early words children use and the ways
children learn new words, she does not mention certain biases that help
children infer the word meaning, like the taxonomic bias or the mutual
exclusivity bias (Guasti, 2002: 74-80). In addition, I think the author
could have stressed the fact that word learning might be different from
other aspects of language development, like phonology, morphology and
syntax (see for example Markson & Bloom, 2001). With respect to the
theories about child language development, they are presented in an
accessible way. However, I think these theories should have been
mentioned at the beginning of the book and at the last unit the author
could refer back to them and discuss them in the light of the data she
presented throughout the book.

Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that Gillen makes it clear from
the very beginning of the book that she will focus on the sociocultural
aspects of child communication and she keeps this promise, as she
refers to Vygotsky's theory and to social effects on language
acquisition in different parts of the book when analyzing the data.
However, on my point of view she makes an injustice to the nativist
view, in that she claims that it is a "deficit model" (Gillen, 2003:
3), since it is emphasized on "what children can't do" (Gillen, 2003:
3). And elsewhere she maintains that according to the nativist view
first language acquisition departs "from nowhere to the ideal" (Gillen,
2003: 7). I think that these two points are not accurate descriptions
of the nativist theory about child language acquisition. My
understanding of this theory is that, on the contrary, it emphasizes on
what children can do and that they do not start from nowhere but rather
from the principles and parameters provided by Universal Grammar (see
also Guasti, 2002: 17-21). Hence, Gillen could have only focused on the
different perspectives the socio-cultural and the nativist theories
have towards child language acquisition: the nativist model is
concerned with the grammatical development per se, whereas the socio-
cultural view seeks to investigate the complexity and diversity of
child communication and its interaction with socio-cultural factors.

In general, this is a good introductory book to child language with
emphasis on socio-cultural approaches and it gives the reader the
opportunity to access real data and to reflect about the way children

Guasti, Maria Teresa (2002) Language Acquisition. The growth of
Grammar. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Markson, Lori & Bloom, Paul (2001) Evidence Against a Dedicated System
for Word Learning in Children, ed. by Michael Tomasello and Elizabeth
Bates, pp. 129-133. Language Development. Blackwell Publishing.
I did my BA on Linguistics and my MA on Teaching Greek as a Foreign
Language at the University of Athens. I also did an MA on Language
Acquisitionat the University of essex. I did my Ph. D. on Sentence
Processing at the University of Essex. At the moment I am an Assistant
professor of Linguistics at Cyprus College, Nicosia, Cyprus. My
research interests lie in the area of Psycholinguistics. More
specifically, I have done some work on the way native speakers and
second language learners process sentences. I want to further explore
the differences between L1 and L2 sentence processing and to
investigate whether native speakers rely more on grammatical cues to
process sentences than L2 learners.