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Review of  A Short Introduction to the Study of Language

Reviewer: Colleen E Gallagher
Book Title: A Short Introduction to the Study of Language
Book Author: Ellen Thompson
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.3289

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With this volume, Ellen Thompson has written an accessible introduction to key topics in linguistics. The explanations of foundational terms and concepts, clear examples of linguistic phenomena, and interpretations of studies should make this an easy-to-understand text for a reader without prior knowledge of the field. It provides examples from various languages to illustrate points about language as a system and to help readers gain perspective on English. The text balances between synthesizing, summarizing, and making broad generalizations, providing in-text citations to support assertions for those who want to follow up. Each chapter provides suggestions for further reading and multimedia viewing.

Chapter 1, “What is language?” begins with interesting general questions to establish the author’s purpose for the book and hook readers unfamiliar with linguistics, e.g., “Is English getting worse (or better)?” and “How do children and adults learn language?” (p. 2). It introduces key topics in linguistics such as the creativity and infinite capacity of language, the rule-governed nature of language, and the nature of linguistic competence as unconscious knowledge. It defines and exemplifies prescriptive vs. descriptive approaches to language and explains the historical origins of common prescriptive grammar rules. The chapter also rebuts the misconception that colloquial English is sloppy with examples of systematic expletive infixation in English and comparative examples of infixation in the Bontoc language of the Philippines.

Chapter 2, “Language and other animal communication systems,” asks what makes human language special and answers with reference to the design features of language (Hockett, 1960; 1967) and the concept of recursion (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch, 2002). After describing aural, visual, chemical and other forms of animal communication, Thompson analyzes the communication systems of bees, birds, vervet monkeys and cephalopods, explaining why each does not fulfill the requirements for human language with reference to the design features and recursion.

Chapter 3, “Teaching human language to apes,” introduces the challenge of researching animal language with the story of Clever Hans the horse. Thompson then explains ape communication practices in the wild and reviews six experiments in teaching apes human spoken and signed languages. The author reports mixed results but ultimately concludes, citing Terrace and colleagues (1979) and referring back to the concept of recursion, that the experiments were a failure and that language is a uniquely human phenomenon.

Chapter 4, “Language learning” packs in a lot of information, ultimately supporting a nativist view on child language acquisition. Thompson first explains two hypotheses for language development: (1) overt and covert parental input and (2) imitation and repetition. The author then rebuts each hypothesis with evidence from scholarship on child-directed speech (CDS) (e.g. Schieffelin, 1994) and Chomskyan approaches to language acquisition (e.g. Chomsky, 1967), explaining nativist theories as the best-supported. The chapter continues with a brief description and examples of stages of language acquisition from birth to age three, including the acquisition of grammatical morphemes and negation. It concludes with a discussion of the gap between expressive and receptive language for young children.

Chapter 5, “Experiments in language acquisition,” provides an overview of experimental methods in first and second language acquisition (SLA) while also addressing developmental sequences and cross-linguistic effects in SLA. After pointing out that infants can discriminate sounds from any human language, it then explains three methods of experimenting with babies: high-amplitude sucking, the preferential sucking technique, and the head-turn preference technique. Thompson then moves on to SLA, posing the question of whether second language learners unconsciously assume their second language will be like their first. The author points out that second language learners go through systematic and predictable stages like child language learners and shares two experimental methods for studying the SLA of grammar: grammaticality judgment tasks and sentence matching tasks. Thompson answers the question of first language influence by concluding that learners do seem to come to the process of SLA assuming the second language will be similar to the first.

Chapter 6, “Abnormal language,” differentiates the typical language development discussed in the prior chapter from cases involving brain damage or environmental deprivation. Thompson addresses the role of the brain in language and then examines four types of conditions with examples: aphasia, language impairment and stuttering, language isolation, and the case of language savants. Thompson positions these conditions as evidence of the development of language separately from general cognitive capacities, a critical period for language acquisition, and the existence of universal grammar.

Chapter 7, “Bilingualism,” asks, “How does the process of learning multiple languages take place?” (p. 99). As a first step in answering the question, Thompson shares two possible models of childhood bilingualism: the Unitary Language System Hypothesis (Volterra and Taeschner, 1978) and the Independent Development Hypothesis (Padilla & Liebman, 1975), and provides evidence to support each. She does not, however, offer clear conclusions on which is better-supported in the literature. The chapter continues on to define code-switching and address why bilinguals code switch with reference to Zentella (1997), emphasizing code switching as a resource for meaning making.

Chapter 8, “Are there primitive languages?” argues effectively that there are not. The author makes this position clear from the start with a quote stating “all languages meet the social and psychological needs of their speakers” (Crystal, 2010, as cited in Thompson, 2019, p. 115). Thompson begins to support this answer by addressing the differences between speech and writing and the culturally and historically conditioned connection between these two forms. The chapter successfully argues against the fallacy of assuming one’s own language to be superior by illustrating with examples from Turkish, African American English Vernacular (AAEV), Standard American English (SAE), Arrente, and Chinese how all languages can express new and complex ideas. Summarizing Wright (2011), Thompson uses the example of click sounds in English to emphasize that perceptions about a language are more closely related to cultural perceptions of its people than to objective linguistic facts.

Chapter 9, “Non-standard dialects,” opens with an explanation of the linguistic criteria of mutual intelligibility for distinguishing language from dialect but concedes that national boundaries and other social and political factors complicate the definition. The chapter compares features of British and American English, including /r/-lessness in New York City dialects (Labov, 1966), to illustrate the arbitrary variation between dialects and the socially constructed nature of the concept of a standard language. Thompson goes into some detail on African-American English Vernacular (AAEV), illustrating the complexity and efficiency of the language by addressing morphosyntactic and phonetic variations between AAEV and standard American English (SAE). The chapter concludes with good references for further reading and viewing.


Overall, this short volume accomplishes the goals it sets with the key questions posed in the first chapter. Chapters Two and Three, for example, effectively illustrate what sets human language apart from communication by other species. Chapter Eight is also particularly effective in accomplishing its goals of establishing the linguistic equality of all languages. The chapter does so by providing comparative examples in AAEV, SAE and others illustrating the complexity of language and using the example of clicks in British and American English (Wright, 2011) to help English-speaking readers re-think what might seem like exotic and unfamiliar sounds.

In a few places, a broader perspective would have helped answer key questions more fully. For example, Chapter Four on child language acquisition does not fully consider social interactionist views (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978) that stress the importance of the environment beyond CDS; nor does it address the value of CDS in creating a warm, inviting interactional environment (Melzi & King, 2003). Additionally, Chapter Five on language experimentation could make more explicit for novice readers that cross-linguistic as well as developmental factors influence second language acquisition.

This book has some notable positives relating to its suitability for novice readers in the field of linguistics. The author assumes no prior background in linguistics, providing clear explanations of key terms and concepts such as chapter one’s discussion of prescriptive and descriptive language; ample concrete examples in English and other languages such as Chapter Four’s transcript excerpts of parent-child interaction; reference to seminal authors and studies such as Hockett’s (1960, 1967) design features of human language, Chomsky’s (1967) critique of behaviorism, and Labov’s (1966) department store study; and suggested materials for further study. These suggested materials are varied print and multimedia resources, including books, scholarly articles, online video clips, documentaries and narrative films, all of which would be useful for an independent reader or for an instructor preparing syllabi and classes. Finally, the text covers a range of topics likely to be included in an introductory linguistics classes, albeit with a tendency to focus on formal rather than social or applied elements.

Depending on the nature of their classes, instructors considering this book as a course text may also take some potential limitations into account. For survey courses, the instructor will likely want to address a greater breadth of topics in greater depth than this text alone does, and so supplemental readings would likely be necessary. Furthermore, while many common introductory linguistics texts (e.g. Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams, 2014; Department of Linguistics at The Ohio State University, 2011) include ample practice items, an instructor using this text would need to develop or adapt tasks prompting students to think more deeply about course concepts.

This text may be appropriate for a short or introductory university course, an advanced partial-year high school course, independent background reading, or as a supplement in a course addressing language as one of several major topics. It may, for example, be useful as an introduction to basic linguistic concepts in an undergraduate education course on language and literacy, though it does not address educational applications that an instructor may wish students to consider as do some other short edited volumes (e.g. Silver & Lwin, 2014) and longer textbooks (e.g. Wang, 2015) promoting teacher language awareness. For example, the bilingualism chapter addresses two possible models of bilingualism and code switching in depth, but not recent socially-informed views of bilingualism (e.g. Garcia, 2009) or related concepts useful for educators such as translanguaging, social and academic language varieties, or biliteracy. Again, course instructors may find in necessary to supplement with additional readings.

In sum, A short introduction to the study of language (Thompson, 2019) is a clearly-written, easy-to-understand introduction to key concepts in linguistics. It would be a good choice for the inquisitive independent reader, for background reading for an introductory linguistics course, or as an assigned text for a course in which the instructor would like to introduce these concepts yet have space to bring in additional texts, tasks, and activities.


Chomsky, N. (1967). The formal nature of language. In E.H. Lenneberg (Ed.), Biological foundations of language (pp. 397-442). New York: Wiley and Sons.

Department of Linguistics at The Ohio State University (2011). Language Files: Materials for an introduction to language and linguistics (11th ed.). Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. (2014). An introduction to language (10th ed.). Boston: Cengage Learning.

Garcia, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hauser, M.D., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, T.W. (2002, November 22).The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298(5598), 1569-1579.

Hockett, C. (1960). The origin of speech. Scientific American, 203, 88-96.

Hockett, C. (1967). The state of the art. The Hague: Mouton.

Labov, William. (1966) The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Melzi, G. & King, A. K. (2003). Spanish diminutives in mother-child conversations. Journal of Child Language, 30, 281-304. doi:10.1017/S0305000903005567

Padilla, A.M. & Liebman, E. (1975). Language acquisition in the bilingual child. The Bilingual Review/LaRevista Bilingue, 2, 35-45.

Volterra, V. & Taeschner, T. (1978). The acquisition and development of language by bilingual children. Journal of Child Language, 5(2), 311-326. doi:10.1017/S030500090000742

Schieffelin, B. B. (1994). How Kaluli children learn what to say, what to do, and how to feel. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Silver, R. E. & Lwin, S. M. (Eds.). (2014). Language in education: Social implications. New York: Bloomsbury.

Terrace, H. S., Petitto, L. A., Sanders, R. J., & Bever, T. G. (1979, November 23). Can an ape create a sentence? Science, 206(4421), 891-902.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wang, X. (2015). Understanding language and literacy development: Diverse learners in the classroom. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Wright, M. (2011). On clicks in English talk-in-interaction. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 41(2), 207-229. doi: 10.1017/S0025100311000144

Zentella, A. C. (1997). Growing up bilingual. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Colleen Gallagher is an assistant professor in teacher education at the University of Dayton, where she teaches future ESOL and world language teachers as well as content area teachers of emergent bilinguals. Her research focuses on facilitating learning for emergent bilinguals and their teachers in content-based instructional settings at both the P-12 and university levels. She holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics and taught Spanish and ESOL in Virginia and Arizona schools before moving into higher education.

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