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Review of  Proceedings of the 41st annual Boston University Conference on Language Development


Reviewer: Phaedra Royle
Book Title: Proceedings of the 41st annual Boston University Conference on Language Development
Book Author: Maria LaMendola Jennifer Scott
Publisher: Cascadilla Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 29.2596

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SUMMARY

These two volumes contain 66 papers presented at the 41st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD) held November 4-6, 2016 a conference organized by professors and students in the Linguistics Program at Boston University, and represents a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of language learning and acquisition. A first this year: posters in addition to talks were accepted as publications in the proceedings. Because of space limitations, only a third of the papers are directly reviewed and little theoretical comments are made. Interested readers are encouraged to read the original texts for a more in-depth understanding.

OVERVIEW

Linguists and psycholinguists, speech-language pathologists and others interested in the development of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, in monolingual, bilingual and language-disordered populations, will find a wide variety of research articles in the BUCLD 41 proceedings. The complete table of contents as well as pdf versions for all papers are available on the Cascadilla Press web site at http://www.cascadilla.com/bucld41toc.html. Pdf versions are a new and interesting feature of this publication since 2016, before which it was sometimes difficult to obtain individual copies of papers without buying the book.

These can be viewed as well as “working papers” with highly innovative approaches to new or old questions, and indicators of potential new research that will eventually be published elsewhere. BUCLD has a diverse tradition in topics, and the number of languages covered seems even larger than usual (among which, American Sign Language, Arabic, Basque, Cantonese, Catalan, Central Taurus Sign Language, Croatian, Cypriot Greek, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Lithuanian, Japanese, Korean, Maltese, Mandarin, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbian, Spanish, and Turkish). Research using methodological approaches such as eye tracking, ERPs and preferential-looking paradigms, as well as more traditional corpus analyses and elicitation studies, with various populations (bilinguals, deaf signers or oral language learners, children with ASD and more) can be found.

Abed Ibrahim and Hamann (pp. 1-17) present work on the usefulness of sentence and non-word repetition tasks for identifying Arabic-German and Turkish-German bilingual children with and without specific language impairment (SLI). They show that both types of tasks are useful for identifying monolingual (German-speaking) as well as bilingual children with language impairment aged 5 to 9. The authors took care to vary both tasks on linguistic complexity (while controlling for working-memory load), in order to identify linguistic-specific domains of weakness in children with SLI.

Bentea and Durrleman (pp. 60-73) study the comprehension of relative clauses in French using subject-verb number (mis-)match (e.g., _Montre moi le chat que le/s chiens mord/ent_ [mɔʁ/d] ‘show me the cat that the dog/s bite/s’). Results show that children have difficulty interpreting object relative clauses if both potential antecedents (i.e., cat and dog) match in number. However, audible agreement on the verb (which is not consistent in French) did not improve comprehension abilities, especially in young (aged 5-8) children. This is consistent with research on simpler structures showing that French-speaking children show protracted mastery of agreement in production and even comprehension in French (Pourquié & Royle, in preparation) and slow emergence of attraction effects on verbs (after 7, Franck et al, 2004).

In “What's a Foo? Toddlers Are Not Tolerant of Other Children's Mispronunciations” (pp. 88-100), Bernier and White evaluate children’s perception of child-like feature-mismatches or novel labels to known word targets (e.g. _shoe_ [ʃu] -> _foo_ [fu], _voo_ [vu], _goo_ [gu] or _tibble_ [tɪbəl]). They find that children are quite intolerant of even 1-feature errors (e.g. foo), although they show graded sensitivity to all types of errors. However, children with experience interacting with other children who spoke other languages than English also had a tendency to map 3-feature errors to novel objects more often than children who did not have this sociolinguistic experience.

Boyce, Aravind and Hackl (pp. 101-113) undertake a corpus-based study of lexical and syntactic effects on auxiliary selection in French. French has two auxiliaries (_avoir_ ‘have’ and _être_ ‘be’), which are used with different verbs based on argument/event structure, with the exception of reflexive verbs, which must take _être_. The authors establish that transitive verbs are appropriately produced with _avoir_ and that intransitives, while being strongly mastered, show some errors not linked to cross-linguistic stability, as predicted by Sorace (2000), but rather to age. The authors interpret the data, after a closer look at their patterns, not to item-based learning but rather to early error prone learning of exception types, and later perfect mastery of new items falling into these difficult-to-learn categories. Furthermore, auxiliary selection ceilinged at age 3, while reflexive clitic use linked to auxiliary selection took much longer (age 6 and above), and these two behaviours were not correlated, leaving open the question of how mastery of reflexive clitics comes about in French.

Brooks, Maouene, Sailor and Seiger-Gardner (pp. 114-127). Use latent semantic analysis (LSA) and the continuous bag of words (CBOW) to study the semantic networks of children with and without SLI. Children with SLI did not show strong word finding difficulties in an association production task (usu. less than 5%) but did show different patterns than controls, exhibiting more clang (phonologically similar words), perseverant, and idiosyncratic responses than controls. Their CBOW semantic distance scores were higher than those of controls and their LSA similarity ones were lower. However, the authors present and analyze qualitative data as percent response types rather than frequencies, which would be more appropriate. Network community structures were also more differentiated into word groups in children without, than those with, SLI.

Choi and Ionin (pp. 154-167) present a study on Korean and Mandarin adult learners of the mass / count distinction in English and establish that Atomicity is a salient cue for this feature when comparing processing of ungrammatical non-atomic (e.g. _*sunshines_) vs. ungrammatical atomic ‘fake’ mass nouns (e.g., _*furnitures_). No effect of first-language was found on their grammaticality-judgement and eye-tracking measures, suggesting that atomicity is a semantic universal.

Jensen, Slabakova and Westergaard (pp. 333-346) investigate Norwegian second language (L2) learners’ ability to learn subject-verb agreement (morphology) and unlearn verb second (syntax) in English. They show that the first process is harder than the second, confirming the bottleneck hypothesis (Slabakova, 2008) that functional morphology is the most difficult domain of L2 acquisition. However, their paradigm confounds learning vs. unlearning and domain (syntax and morphology). Anecdotally, I learned the same processes in the other direction (English -> Danish) and found unlearning subject-verb agreement much easier than verb second. Obviously the absence of verb morphology played a role in my unlearning. This factor might also have impacted results on this study (i.e. making learning harder in the other direction). It would be interesting to investigate more closely which factors (e.g., unlearning vs. learning, obligatory in L1 vs. L2, morphology vs. syntax) are driving results.

Kapatsinski (pp. 357-372) uses singular-plural novel-word learning to investigate how rule-like or statistical-like learning might obtain depending on the type of input received. Results show that participants might use both rule and schema type learning and that cue-opacity or ambiguity is not a factor driving pattern learning. Interestingly, this study does not attempt to reproduce the particularity in natural languages to have more singular than plural forms in the input, nor the fact that that different nouns can vary in this respect (e.g., _eyes_ being more often in the plural than _hammer_).

LaTourrette and Waxman (pp. 411-423) propose a conceptual account of children's difficulties extending adjectives across basic-level kinds. They compare children’s extensions of novel adjectives to ‘blobs of stuff’ and ‘pictures of things’ (i.e., kinds) using vague images that could represent objects such as combs. Children in the ‘blob’ condition tended to extend the novel adjective to a similar item more often than children in the ‘picture’ condition, although both groups got better over time, as well as in comparison to a control group who were told the book was full of ‘pages’. The authors conclude that adjective extension is easier for children when they apply it to non-objects, and that this procedure can produce high levels of accuracy in comprehension.

Ma, Gao, and Zhou (pp. 436-442) explore sensitivity to tones in young Mandarin learners during novel word learning and recognition and test whether young children aged three can distinguish tones 2, 3 and 4 on novel items. They do, but have more difficulties with T3, especially in a sub-group of children, showing that they can use tone to learn new lexical items but that T3 is more difficult. The authors speculate this this might be related to the smaller saliency/differences between T3 and T2 (which were paired in the task) or with the presence of tone sandhi in Mandarin, where T3 becomes rising T2 in combination with another T3.

Martohardjono, Phillips, Madsen and Schwartz (pp. 452-465) attempt to study heritage and second language (L2) Spanish-English speakers processing of Spanish errors using ERPs. Structures used are types 1), where a head noun in the complex DP is ungrammatical in both English and Spanish, and 2), where a syntactic complementizer is omitted, a structure grammatical in English though not in Spanish.

1) _¿Qué vecino contó Juan *el chisme que robó el carro anoche?_
‘What neighbour did Juan say *the rumour that robbed the car last night?’
2) _*¿Qué hermana confesó Inés ∅ (que) había comdio la tarta?_
‘What sister did Inés confess (that) had eaten the cake?’

Unfortunately, the experiment includes serious biases, especially in the second condition, which render data interpretation difficult. As has been argued by Steinhauer and Drury (2012), comparing two conditions with different target words types is not ideal. In 2 this is _había_ in one condition, a verb in sentences where _que_ is omitted, vs. _que_ the relativizer, in sentences where it is not. This paradigm can cause differences in ERP waves — the second being typically more negative (Marcinek et al, 2013) —, which can bias the analysis. Furthermore, auditory cues to ungrammaticality could play a role, as ungrammatical sentences were produced without controlling for intonation or other low-level auditory cues. This is patently obvious in Figure 1 (lower panel, p. 458) where we observe that the so-called N400 effect of ungrammaticality of _Inés *había…_ starts BEFORE the presentation of _había…_ that is on the baseline _Inés_, while the sentence is still grammatical. The same problem can apply to condition 1) where the baseline appears to show crossing lines (a ‘butterfly effect’) before the target window, possibly enhancing the P600. The author’s interpretation of offline judgements (which are generally inadequate in condition 2) as being incoherent with the ERP data is thus flawed, i.e., it may be that no automatic processing of the error was appropriately detected due to this experimental design.

Marull (pp. 466-480) evaluates effects of language experience on L2 morphosyntactic integration and anticipation. Using visual-world and grammaticality-judgment tasks, she attempts to provide counter-evidence for the RAGE (Reduced Ability to Generate Expectations) theory of L2 acquisition (Grüter & Rohde, 2013). However, she does not include participant group as a between factor and therefore cannot justify her separate analyses for L1 and L2 groups (Nieuwenhuis, et al, 2011). Furthermore, her design is unclear: are all targets plural? What is the experimental/theoretical justification for the two types of determiners being used? (The author states “Crosslinguistic similarity” as being the reason and leaves it to the reader to figure it out). The interpretation of results is most probably overstated, as statistical analyses are not convincing (e.g., using ANOVAs for small numbers of participants and extremely large standard deviations in reaction-time data, which signal intra-subject variability that should be accounted for, Baayen et al, 2008).

Meir & Armon-Lotem (pp. 495-508) present a study comparing bilingual children with SLI to bilingual controls of the same age (6 years old), but matched with children with SLI on their weaker language, thus allowing for both age and language matching. They use the common pairing of non-word repetition (NWR) and sentence repetition (SR) tasks to evaluate three groups. SLI bilinguals speaking Russian and Hebrew and two controls groups of either Hebrew- or Russian-dominant bilinguals, compared on their weaker language to children with SLI. They find that error patterns are quite different in children with and without LI. Consonant cluster and syllable reduction are more common in children with LI than those without LI, and many different syntactic patterns are revealed. Unfortunately, it is hard to clearly grasp error patterns, as they are presented as percentages, which is inappropriate for frequency data. The statistics also seem inadequate.

Petroj (pp. 532-545) investigates article distribution in American Sign Language (ASL) concurrent with whispered English. Studying participants who are CODAs (who simultaneously learned ASL and English), she observes that the grammar of ASL influences article use in whispered speech when blended with ASL, which does not use articles. She shows that prosodic preferences override syntactic constraints in English for determiner production in whispered speech in these children.

Smeets (pp. 588-601) investigates ultimate attainment of L2 object movement in Dutch, focusing on the syntax-discourse interface. She observes that advanced English- and German- L2 learners of Dutch can attain L1 levels of sensitivity to object vs. wide focus constraints on object movement in non-canonical structures such as _Appels heeft Bas gekocht_ ‘Apples Bas bought’. Furthermore, in scrambled sentences such as _dat Hans de secretaresse binnenkort zal ontslaan_ ‘that Hans will fire the secretary soon’ with the object given (Is there any news about the secretary?) versus wide focus (what did Wouter say?), native and German-Dutch L2 speakers show preference for the scrambled word order, but only a subset of English-Dutch L2 speakers do (4 of 15) . Finally she tested interpretations of scrambling with indefinite structures, which lead to specific readings, e.g. _De entertainer heft een paar liedjes regelmatig gezongen_ ‘The entertainer has regularly sung a few (specific) songs’. In this case, 10 of 15 English-Dutch L2 learners reach native-like readings (80% correct or higher). These results show on the one hand that L2 speakers can attain native-like syntactic behaviour but, on the other, that some aspects of the syntax-discourse interface may be more difficult. These cannot be attributed to a general bilingual disadvantage, as German-Dutch L2 speakers performed as natives.

Terzi, Zafeiri, Marinis and Francis study the use of object clitics in narratives of high-functioning Greek-speaking children with Autism. Their results show practically no differences between 20 children with Autism (mean age 6:11) and 20 neurotypical children matched on their receptive vocabulary and verbal intelligence (mean age 6;7). One pattern that distinguishes the groups is a preference for subject clitics in children with Autism. The statistical methods seem inappropriate however, as t-tests are used for frequency data.

Tieu and Križ (pp. 651-664) investigate exhaustivity in French clefts — _C’est le ballon qui est rouge_ ‘It’s the balloon that is red’ — and homogeneity in plural definite descriptions — _Les ballons sont rouges_ ‘The balloons are red’. In infelicitous contexts (where for example, another object was also red in the cleft condition, or one of the balloons was another colour in the plural definite condition) 3-to-4-year-old children accepted them as true. 5-to-6-year-old children accepted clefts more than definite descriptions, but even adults accepted infelicitous clefts (∼ 50%), while rejecting infelicitous definite descriptions. The authors conclude that French children begin by interpreting clefts non-exhaustively and definite plurals existentially, and that a homogeneous interpretation of definite plurals emerges before exhaustivity (at ages where English-and German-speaking children have acquired exhaustivity, at least partially). However, the fact that adults also allow non-exhaustive readings of the cleft structure argues for a second non-exhaustive reading for clefts in French (as controls sentences with ‘only’ were correctly interpreted as exhaustive).

Veenstra, Antoniou, Katsos and Kissine (pp. 706-717) study attraction effects and executive control in monolingual Dutch and sequential bilingual French-Dutch children aged 11. They were asked to describe pictures where the head noun matched, or not, in number with the local noun (e.g., _De cirkel/s naast de driehoek/en is/zijn blau_ ‘The circle/s next to the triangle/s is/are blue’). No bilingual advantage on executive control tasks was found. In fact, the monolingual group showed better scores on the Corsi block forward subtest. Both monolinguals and bilinguals showed attraction effects, i.e. verb-agreement errors triggered by the intervening noun when mismatching in number with the head noun. Finally, backward digit span and backward Corsi block scores negatively predicted agreement errors (over both groups), that is better scores on these measures were correlated with fewer attraction errors.

White, Goad, Su, Smeets, Mortazavinia, Garcia and Brambati Guzzo (pp. 744-752) present preliminary data on the effects of prosody in pronoun interpretation in Italian in sentences of the type _Lorenzo ha scritto a Roberto (#) quando Ø/lui si è trasferito a Torino_ ‘Lorenzo wrote to Roberto (#) when (he) moved to Turin.’ They show that 1) L2- and L1 speakers of Italian have different interpretations of overt and null subjects as referring to a preceding subject (Lorenzo) or object (Roberto) in the sentence, or even some other discourse referent, 2) that the presence of a pause before the null pronoun can promote an object referent interpretation, and 3) that the presence of contrastive stress on overt pronouns appears to interact with (no-)pause effects on their interpretation.

Yatsushiro, Sauerland and Alexiadou (pp. 753-765) present an incredible amount of cross-linguistic data (18 languages form Finnic, Semitic, Greek, Baltic, Slavic, Germanic and Romance families) in support of the unmarkedness of plural. Interestingly they include French which does not have overt plural marking on the noun (i.e., the –s in only written but not usually pronounced) so it is unclear whether the authors wanted to test plural marking on nouns only or on other structures (such as French determiners which do bear number information on the vowel). In any case the cross-linguistic data are not really discussed, while the authors focus rather on two German experiments for singular markedness interpretation, which they argue correlate without statistical support or any convincing illustration (i.e., a scatter plot that distributes the data widely across the figure) or clear discussion of their impact.

EVALUATION

The papers in these volumes are directed at researchers and graduate students in language acquisition and processing. The methodological approaches and theoretical assumptions are quite varied in the papers, thus making the papers extremely varied in their scope and coherence with the rest of the volume. Because of their short length, some background might be necessary to be able to appreciate their contents. They are all written as ‘stand-alone’ papers, and are thus of value as short scientific papers, especially in a research seminar type setting. However, undergraduates could also benefit from these papers, especially if put in the context of other readings with theoretical and methodological grounding for them. I often use BUCLD proceedings as short discussion papers in seminars or even exam papers to help students develop their ability to comment on scientific articles in domains or populations that are relevant to their work (in my case, future SLPs).

Having read a number of previous BUCLD proceedings, I can state that the quality of the papers has generally been maintained or has risen over time, at least in terms of presentation, however, as usual, there is high variability in the quality of data analysis or even scientific discussion. This is mainly due to a traditional lack of editorial oversight. As I have mentioned before, the most appealing quality of these papers is that they report on very recent research, which is often not yet available elsewhere and can be cutting-edge. This can also have some downsides: Chapter quality is quite variable, with some research still ongoing, some methodologies questionable, or theoretical assumptions not explicit. In particular, some statistical analyses are appropriately developed and presented while others are inadequate (for example, the recent move to mixed-models in R (REF) is quite evident, but model presentation often lacks basic details such as AIC information, while other researchers perform t-tests on frequency data, which is inappropriate). Some analyses (whether on response, reaction-time or even ERP data) do not check for group interaction of effects, before breaking down analyses into different partitions (Nieuwenhuis et al., 2011). Some papers don't even bother to check for group effects, and some authors apparently do not spellcheck their papers. I have made this comment before about the BUCLD proceedings (https://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-55.html). I think it is high time that an editorial review is performed on papers before they are published. This practice has been established in much smaller student-run conferences elsewhere, e.g., VOCUM (http://vocum.ca/en/), and allows for some level of peer review. Because of the new policy allowing all presenters to submit papers, I fear that flawed papers might become more common in this publication. However, I must state that in general, the quality of the papers is quite high and they can present insightful and inspirational research.

REFERENCES

Baayen, Robert Harald, Doug J. Davidson & Douglas M. Bates. 2008. Mixed-Effects Modeling with Crossed Random Effects for Subjects and Items. Journal of Memory and Language 59. 390-412.

Franck, Julie, Stephany Cronel-Ohayon, Laurence Chillier, Ulrich H. Frauenfelder, Cornelia Hamann, Luigi Rizzi & Pascal Zesiger. 2004. Normal and Pathological Development of Subject-Verb Agreement in Speech Production: A Study on French Children. Journal of Neurolinguistics 17(2-3). 147-80.

Grüter, Theres & Hannah Rohde. L2 Processing Is Affected by Rage: Evidence from Reference Resolution. In 12th conference on Generative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition (GASLA). University of Florida, FL, 2013.

Marcinek, Bradley T., Karsten Steinhauer, Phaedra Royle & John E. Drury. 2013. Syntactic Violations for Content Verses Function Words in Reading: Erp Evidence. In Society for the Neurobiology of Language. San Diego, CA. http://bradmarcinek.net/files/Marcinek_Steinhauer_Royle_Drury_SNL2013.pdf

Nieuwenhuis, Sander, Birte U Forstmann & Eric-Jan Wagenmakers. 2011. Erroneous Analyses of Interactions in Neuroscience: A Problem of Significance. Nature Neuroscience 14. 1105-07.

Pourquié, Marie & Phaedra Royle. (in preparation). Argument Structure and Verb Inflection in French Sli.

Slabakova, Roumyana. (2008). Meaning in the Second Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sorace, Antonella. (2000). Gradients in Auxiliary Selection with Intransitive Verbs. Language 76(4). 859-890.

Steinhauer, Karsten & John E. Drury. (2012). On the early left-anterior negativity (ELAN) in syntax studies. Brain and Language 120(2). 135-162.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D and is a full professor at the School of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology at the Université de Montréal, and is a member of the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music (CRBLM). Her interests lie in psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, language disorders, language acquisition, morphology, morpho-phonology and morpho-syntax, and processing of complex noun-phrases in French populations with and without learning challenges (SLI, Cochlear implants, Bilingualism, Ageing).

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