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Review of  Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Darcy Sperlich
Book Title: Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition
Book Author: Jill de Villiers Thomas Roeper
Publisher: Springer Nature
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.699

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EDITORS: Jill de Villiers, Tom Roeper
TITLE: Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics
YEAR: 2011

Darcy Sperlich, Department of Applied Linguistics and Language Studies,
University of Auckland / School of English, Manukau Institute of Technology

This handbook is the newest in line on First Language Acquisition (FLA), with
nine chapters (excluding the introduction) on major topics in FLA. I will
provide a brief summary of each chapter, followed by an evaluation.

Introduction -- Jill de Villiers and Tom Roeper
The editors discuss the aims and contributions the handbook makes, setting the
generative scene and providing a clear overview of each paper.

Missing Subjects in Early Child Language -- Nina Hyams
Hyams first focuses on parameter setting and maturational analyses regarding
missing subjects, discussing the pros and cons of pro-drop setting,
morphological uniformity (having to do with the relationship between inflection
and null subjects), topic drop, competing grammars (both settings are considered
initially but one wins out), and licensing of PRO. Next, she turns her attention
to missing subjects in finite clauses, discussing the more contemporary proposal
called ‘root subject drop’.

To this point her discussion is focused on the grammar internal (UG) hypotheses
of subject drop but is followed up by investigating grammar-external hypotheses.
The first of which regards processing limits (e.g., the ‘output omission
model’), where subject drop is explained in terms of the limits on how children
can process sentences, and the second of metric effects (pronouns do not fit a
trochaic foot). She then reviews studies using differing methodologies, showing
that the converging evidence falls on the grammar internal side. Finally, she
discusses discourse factors surrounding null subjects, concluding that the area
is a highly complex one requiring further research.

Grammatical Computation in the Optional Infinitive Stage -- Ken Wexler
Wexler’s chapter tackles the question of why young children use an infinitive
main verb (where one would use a finite main verb), and how to account for it.
This is termed the Optional Infinitive (OI) stage, where Wexler first lays the
groundwork and gives a thorough background of its development, presenting a wide
range of studies. He discusses how languages may or may not go through the OI
stage, as well as looking at the Agr/Tns Omission Model (ATOM) model in regards
to Case assignment.

Subsequently, he turns to models of the OI, presenting extensive evidential data
to show that the ‘radical omission’ model as the right path to take. One such
model is the Unique Checking Constraint (UCC), originating from Wexler himself.
After an in-depth discussion of the model, he compares it to the Truncation
Model, and ultimately rejects it in favor of the UCC. The topic shifts to the
maturational nature of OI, and how contemporary studies point to genetic
influence on language development.

The last major section of this chapter sets out to refute empiricist models of
OI, with the lion’s share of negative attention focused on Legate and Yang’s
learning theory model. He critiques their proposals in great detail, showing
their weaknesses in favor of the UCC. Finally, he covers be-omission, and
mentions other topics that he was not able to cover in the chapter.

Computational Models of Language Acquisition -- Charles Yang
Yang presents his approach to language acquisition through a probabilistic
grammar theory, in which children entertain multiple grammars (UG restricted),
and through language input, one will eventually win out. He starts by
introducing us to the statistics behind word and construction frequency, and the
theories of how children set out to learn them (in terms of positive and
negative results). He covers distributional learning in terms of syntactic
categories and grammar, presenting various factors that computational
linguistics brings to the table.

Yang then moves on to models of acquisition in the Principles and Parameters
framework, and focuses upon probabilistic models of parameter setting, and
shows, for example, how parameters have signatures in the input, leading to
efficient parameter setting.

Finally, the chapter covers learnability and development, discussing various
issues such as the Subset Principle in how grammar is restricted, to how
parameters relate to the development of child language.

The Acquisition of the Passive -- Kamil Ud Deen
Deen starts by covering the background of passives and the difficulty they pose
for children (first focusing on English), covering issues such as role reversal,
frequency, and short vs. long passives, among others. Next, he moves onto early
literature on the matter, and then focuses on the analyses provided. These
include the A-Chain Deficit Hypothesis and its predictions, and its updated
version called the Universal Phase Requirement. A similar overview is given of
the Theta-Transmission model. Next is the issue of frequency, noting that while
the passive may be rare in English, this is certainly not necessarily the issue
with other languages (and Deen uses a study on Sesotho to illustrate this).

Deen concludes with more contemporary studies, the first which notes the misuse
of agents and experiencers in Truth Value Judgment Tasks, correcting that use,
resulting in data that are problematic for the aforementioned models. The
second study uses priming methodology which shows the passive is primable in
young children, hence alluding their knowledge of it. This is followed by a
study into Mandarin and Cantonese speaking children which demonstrates their
better grasp of the passive over their English counterparts; and finally a newer
study on Sesotho passives confirming young children’s knowledge of the passive.

The Acquisition Path for Wh-Questions -- Tom Roeper and Jill de Villiers
The authors first cover basic wh-terminology, and then move to wh-movement and
auxiliary movement in child language. First, they show that through auxiliary
movement more light is cast upon the English child’s CP structure (C with no
Spec position), and also the differences found in Romance languages. They
progress into issues surrounding subject and objects, and how a child might
understand wh-questions about them. Next, the authors consider cross-over
effects in wh-questions, before moving onto long distance wh-questions, noting
that it is not clear whether subject or object wh-questions are relatively
harder to interpret.

The next section discusses quantificational properties of wh-questions, where
the authors investigate the interface of semantics and pragmatics with syntax.
For example, the word ‘who’ may ask for one or more persons, and within child
language the child first would only provide an answer with a single person
(e.g., ‘who is eating ice cream’ would elicit ‘the girl’, even though there are
three girls eating it), whereas at a later stage children realize that they may
provide an answer which encompasses all the people . The authors then consider
Superiority effects in various languages, where they consider the issue of the
effect being absent in German.
The last major section deals with barriers to wh-movement, which are shown to be
present in child grammar. Medial questions are next, discussed in terms of
Partial movement (a wh-word has moved to either the first or embedded CP),
noting that there are at least five different varieties of movement. Finally,
they round off the discussion by elaborating wh-movement in terms of the Strong
Minimalist Thesis and the insights it provides, e.g. the application of Phase
and its implications for wh-movement.

Binding and Coreference: Views from Child Language -- Cornelia Hamann
Hamann begins the discussion with the ‘Delay of Principle B Effect’, whereby
children do not interpret pronouns (in the object position) correctly at times,
something which has since been updated to the ‘Pronoun Interpretation Problem
(PIP)’. She then sets the theoretical background of the Binding Theory (while
also showing its problems), and pragmatic approaches to binding and coreference.
Her discussion progresses to the typology of anaphors, and of binding in
Minimalist terms.

The next section looks to apply this to children’s language, focusing on their
interpretation of pronouns. After reviewing several studies, the question is
asked whether or not there is a PIP effect at all. Again after reviewing the
literature, Hamann concludes that the PIP is related to coreference rather than
binding. This is followed by a discussion on child English and Dutch studies in
terms of reflexivity and chains, before moving onto clitic pronouns, where the
PIP effect is not observed. Analyses of why the PIP effect is not observed in
such languages are covered, from a structural and pragmatic viewpoint.

The final section concerns more recent developments, reviewing studies that
criticize earlier studies on methodology, and henceforth their conclusions. The
final component covers how a ‘pronoun parameter’ might be set.

Universal Grammar and the Acquisition of Japanese Syntax -- Koji Sugisaki and
Yukio Otsu
This chapter focuses solely on the child’s acquisition of Japanese, the only
language-specific article in this handbook. Each topic is supported by
experimental studies. The authors first discuss the basic word order in Japanese
(SOV), and how SVO and OSV sentences originate from that basic order (via
scrambling), and how children interpret those sentences. Next is the
configurational nature of child Japanese. Third, wh-movement (in-situ) is shown
to be locally restricted; fourth, the c-command condition; and fifth, binding
conditions on the Japanese anaphor ‘zibun’. The final section considers the
distinction between indirect and adversative passives and if children are aware
of this distinction.

Studying Language Acquisition Through the Prism of Isomorphism -- Julien Musolino
This chapter has to do with scope ambiguity with quantifiers and negatives in
sentences, e.g. ‘Every linguist didn’t read this review’, termed Isomorphism.
Children and adults tend to have different interpretations of such sentences,
and the author provides basic background on the relationship between quantifiers
and negation, and then on his own previous study that discovered the phenomena
and his grammatical explanation for it (which has since been abandoned). This
brings us to studies that led to the above conclusion, and to discussion of
Isomorphism having garden-path effects, and occurring as a pragmatic
epiphenomenon, introducing the Question-Answer Requirement (QAR) analysis. This
is followed by a detailed critique of the QAR, showing its shortcomings. The
final point is that Isomorphism should be viewed as a progressive research
program, discussing the various roads ahead.

Acquiring Knowledge of Universal Quantification -- William Philip
The concluding chapter focuses on a similar topic to the preceding one,
quantification. Philip begins by considering what role UG has in learning
quantification, covering the difficulties it poses, the restriction on it that a
child must learn, and the guidance UG provides. He then focuses on an
interesting problem observed called ‘exhaustive pairing’, e.g. given the
sentence ‘Each linguist is reading a book’, and there is a picture with three
linguists and four books (implying one is unread (the book and not the
linguist)), a child might reject the above sentence because of the unread book.
He reviews the proposed analyses of the problem, and focuses on the Pragmatic
Account where its predictions are tested in three differing experiments. I
cannot comment on these experiments in detail, but suffice to say his findings
support his view of UG guidance given to the acquisition of quantification
(along with other factors).

One gets the distinct impression that the scholars in this handbook are on top
of their field, as their articles are thoroughly referenced and the issues
comprehensively covered. Considering Hyams, nothing, so to speak, is missing on
her discussion of missing subjects, as she skillfully takes us from the
beginnings of the research issue to the present, leaving no stone left unturned.
Reading Wexler, one has the impression that his theory is the only way to go, as
he methodologically takes apart all other competing theories, leaving his as the
winner. Surprisingly perhaps, one theory that Wexler deconstructs is Yang’s,
presented by Yang himself in the next article. Yang, on the other hand, is more
concerned with explaining his theory rather than comparing it with the
competition, and once finished the readers will be left to make up their own
mind, as both scholars present very convincing arguments. Deen’s chapter on the
passive brings to bear good cross-linguistic evidence from lesser-studied
languages in FLA. One may note however that he states that Cantonese passives
obligatory use the ‘by phrase’ in every passive -- this is not completely
correct, as it has been noted in Matthews and Yip (1994:150) that Cantonese may
also drop the ‘by phrase’, which has come about by influence of Mandarin. Roeper
and de Villier’s chapter on wh-questions is an excellent overview on the issues
at hand, taking us up to current Minimalist thinking and applying it to the
phenomena observed. Perusing Hamann, the studies reviewed in her chapter are
mostly concerned with structural and pragmatic theories of binding; while it is
understandable that most previous studies had been undertaken with the Binding
theory in mind, recent Minimalist trends (e.g., Reuland (2011), Rooryck and
Wyngaerd (2011)) aim to do away with the theory completely. Personally, I would
have liked to see the issues put under the Minimalist microscope, as this would
have an impact on the discussion of Principle B (where the current literature
seeks to do away with). Sugisaki and Otsu’s article is a good all rounder which
applies the generative analyses in FLA to Japanese, presumably to show the
success of UG applied to an Asian language. Musolino’s chapter seems to be the
least UG-driven, as his investigation into isomorphism is semantic in nature. To
be fair, his earliest account of this problem sought a grammatical explanation
which has now been abandoned in favor of a more overarching research program;
yet after reading his present account I thought it a little odd, considering its
semantic nature, to find it in a volume dedicated to the generative paradigm.
Philip’s final chapter on UG quantification is a very interesting read, and the
experiments he undertakes deserve to be commended as they are very well thought
out and designed.

Looking at the book as a whole, the chapters are authoritative, well written,
easy to follow and fit well with each other. Authors are well aware of each
other’s contributions and reference each other on occasion. The languages
discussed cover a wide typological range, showing the wide applicability of
their approaches, and also show further avenues of research. Regarding the
medium, it is good that the publishers have it as an e-book as well as on paper
for easier access.
Lastly, this volume is overwhelmingly focused on state-of-the-art discussions,
with only Philip offering a new study, and in fairness, as the editors state in
their introduction, this is their main purpose.

Finally, how does this book differ from recent volumes on FLA? If we pick up The
Cambridge Handbook of Child Language (2009), we find wide ranging topics on all
aspects of child language written by many different scholars in the field. The
current volume is simply focused on generative approaches, and authors have been
given generous space to review and argue their positions, which ultimately
leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the field. In light of this,
the book is most useful for graduate students and researchers alike. Overall,
this handbook is an excellent resource for those who wish to understand the core
issues surrounding language acquisition from the point of view of the generative

Bavin, E.L. (ed). (2009). The Cambridge Handbook of Child Language. Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press.

Matthews, S. and V. Yip. (1994). Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London, New
York, Routledge.

Reuland, E. (2011). Anaphora and Language Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The
MIT Press.

Rooryck, J. and G. V. Wyngaerd. (2011). Dissolving Binding Theory. New York,
Oxford University Press.

Darcy Sperlich is currently a senior lecturer of ESOL in the School of English at the Manukau Institute of Technology, in Auckland, New Zealand. He is also a PhD student at the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland, investigating anaphoric interpretation in Chinese Mandarin by speakers of other languages, and whether or not this suggests an anaphoric pragmatic/syntactic division of labour in the languages concerned. His other research interests include Chinese comparative dialectology, especially as related to syntax.