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Review of  Approaches to Bootstrapping: Phonological, lexical, syntactic and neurophysiological aspects of early language acquisition

Reviewer: Annemarie Kerkhoff
Book Title: Approaches to Bootstrapping: Phonological, lexical, syntactic and neurophysiological aspects of early language acquisition
Book Author: Juergen Weissenborn
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 13.2389

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Date: Fri, 20 Sep 2002 13:46:57 +0200
From: Annemarie Kerkhoff
Subject: Weissenborn & Hoehle (2001) Approaches to Bootstrapping, vol. 1 & 2

Weissenborn, Jürgen, and Barbara Höhle, ed. (2001)
Approaches to Bootstrapping: Phonological, Lexical,
Syntactic and Neurophysiological Aspects of Early
Language Acquisition, Vol. 1. John Benjamins Publishing
Company, hardback ISBN 1-55619-992-9, vii+294pp, $86.00,
Language Acquisition and Language Disorders 23.

Weissenborn, Jürgen, and Barbara Höhle, ed. (2001)
Approaches to Bootstrapping: Phonological, Lexical,
Syntactic and Neurophysiological Aspects of Early
Language Acquisition, Vol. 2. John Benjamins Publishing
Company, hardback ISBN 1-55619-993-7, vi+331pp, $91.00,
Language Acquisition and Language Disorders 24.

Annemarie Kerkhoff, Utrecht Institute of Linguistics UiL-OTS,
Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Book announcement on Linguist:

This book explores the structure and interaction of
bootstrapping mechanisms available to the language-
learning child, focusing on the child's sensitivity to
certain properties of the input. The 'bootstrapping'
problem is one of the most fundamental issues in the
study of child language: to acquire language a child must
parse the signal, but parsing the signal requires
knowledge of the language. Importantly, the editors have
chosen to take an interdisciplinary and cross-linguistic
approach to this topic.

The two volumes of 'Approaches to bootstrapping' together
consist of five separate parts. The first two parts focus
on the nature of the input and its cues to lexical and
syntactic knowledge. The third part concerns early
language production, and the role of prosodic and
morphosyntactic knowledge. Part IV addresses
neurophysiological aspects of language acquisition, and
part V concludes with some additional perspectives on the
issues raised.

In the following review, a selected number of articles
from 'Approaches to Bootstrapping' will be discussed.
This selection is based on the interests of the reviewer,
and does not reflect the merit of these articles in
comparison with others.

Part I deals with early word learning and its
prerequisites. In 'Bootstrapping from the signal: Some
further directions', Jusczyk gives an excellent and
useful overview of the author's important contribution to
the field. Previously published and unpublished data are
provided concerning infants' word segmentation abilities.
The author reports mainly on studies that use versions of
the Headturn Preference Procedure (Jusczyk and Aslin
1995). These studies have shown that English-learning
7.5-month-olds have some ability to segment words in
fluent speech. 7.5-Month-old infants (but not 6-month-
olds) seem to have acquired crucial information about the
sound organisation of their native language, including
word stress, allophonic cues, phonotactic constraints and
distributional regularities. Infants seem to show a
preference for bisyllabic words with a WS pattern as
initial (first-pass) strategy, consistent with the
Metrical Segmentation Strategy (MSS) as proposed by
Cutler (Cutler, 1990; 1994), identifying the occurrence
of strong syllables with the onsets of new words in
fluent speech. However, infants do not detect
familiarised WS words (guitar, surprise), which
constitutes evidence for use of distributional cues to
determine where the word is likely to end. However, it is
argued that additional information based on allophonic
cues or phonotactic sequences may override a segmentation
strategy based purely on stress cues.

Jusczyk proposes that children use strategies that allow
them to 'divide and conquer the input': carving the input
up into word-sized units provides the child with
opportunities for observing regularities in allophonic
and phonotactic properties which occur at the onsets and
offsets of these units. The second part of this article
addresses the relationship between word segmentation and
syntactic organisation. From previous work it has become
clear that infants are sensitive to prosodic organisation
in clauses and phrases (Gerken et al., 1994; Jusczyk et
al, 1992). The author suggests that infants' developing
word segmentation abilities may play a role in this
process by enabling the learner to track the distribution
of grammatical morphemes within the boundaries of
prosodic phrases. However, infants draw on a variety of
sources of information - conceptual and linguistic - to
learn about the syntactic organisation of the language.

Although this article is one of the most important ones
in the book, and fits in well with the overall aim of the
volumes, it does not contain much new or unpublished
data. The articles cited are not very recent (the latest
being (Jusczyk et al., 1999)) and a more extensive
overview of Jusczyk's work can be found in his book 'the
discovery of spoken language' (Jusczyk, 1997). Some of
the more problematic issues that are not dealt with
concern the methodology and the precise nature of the
Headturn Preference Procedure. Thus, it is unclear how to
determine whether longer looking times represent a
preference for new stimuli or a preference for familiar
stimuli. Also, the difference between discrimination on
the one hand and preference on the other is not discussed
in any detail.

Furthermore, overview articles like this can make it
difficult to evaluate results since no specific data are
given. For example, the author confines himself to
stating "the overall performance by the 7.5-month-olds
suggests that infants do have some capacity to deal with
interference from competing voices".

Echols' 'Contributions of Prosody to Infants'
Segmentation and Representation of Speech' is very clear
and well-structured article, which further addresses the
origin of word-level segmentation, as well as the
availability and use of prosodic cues such as
perceptually salient syllables and rhythm. Experimental
findings suggest that the salience of both stressed and
final syllables may derive from acoustic features used to
prosodically highlight these syllables. Furthermore, both
types of syllable are attended to and represented more
precisely by 9-month-old infants. Thus, these
perceptually salient syllables may serve as prosodic cues
for word-segmentation, although the relative roles of
these cues may change with development.

Fisher & Church's article links acquisition to perceptual
learning and memory processes. The authors argue that the
Perceptual Representations Systems (PRS) framework makes
learning an integral part of speech perception: long-term
auditory priming as phenomenon of implicit rather than
explicit memory, is mediated by a learning mechanism that
could contribute to the creation of a long-term store of
word-sounds in children, as well as to the life-long
adaptability of speech processing to context.

Fernald, McRoberts and Swingley focus on early word
recognition, stressing the graded nature of developmental
changes. Increased speed, accuracy and efficiency of
spoken word recognition in the second year of life are
argued to not only reflect changes in cognitive
capabilities (not specific to language processing), but
also to reflect changes in infants' lexical
representations. The authors provide evidence from eye-
tracking studies that suggest that infants have some
ability to process speech incrementally, providing
evidence against the assumption that early lexical
representations are holistic or phonetically
underspecified. It is not entirely clear however what is
meant by 'holistic' or 'phonetically specified', and
whether these two concepts are in fact opposed to one

Part II focuses on input cues to syntactic knowledge. In
the first article, Gerken provides an overview of recent
research on the nature of the input and early acquisition
of syntax, arguing for a bridge between the two. She
makes the important point that "if one type of
grammatical representation of a particular utterance is
extractable from the signal and another representation
for the same utterance is not, the extractable
representation should be treated as a priori more

The remaining articles address possible prosodic cues to
the acquisition of syntax. For instance, Höhle,
Weissenborn, Schmitz and Ischebeck found prosodic
differences between sentences involving head-complement
constructions as compared to head-modifier constructions.

Penner, Wymann and Weissenborn address the well-known
discrepancy between the child's perceptive capacity and
speech production when they discuss the prosody-lexicon
interface. They propose that the child makes use of a
robust algorithm for prosodic bootstrapping, the
'Rhythmic Activation Principle' or RAP. This will enable
the child to set the head directionality parameter, by
mapping the pattern of relative prominence in the
phonological phrase onto the corresponding complement-
head configurations in the syntax. The authors show that
this algorithm is successfully applied by normally
developing children as well as language-impaired
children. The production lag follows from the fact that
the child resorts to an underspecified representation of
the phonological phrase, due to a conservative learning
principle. The difference between the two groups is
explained by stating that underspecified representations
become persistent in language-impaired children.

Part III addresses interactions of prosodic and
morphosyntactic knowledge in early language production.

Demuth argues for a constraint-based approach to
acquisition. She also discusses implications of her
approach for the identification of children at risk of
language delay.

Freitas, Miguel and Hub Faria show that acquisition of
syllabic structures, like codas in European Portuguese,
might depend on the grammatical features encoded by them.
Thus, interaction between prosody and morphology may have
consequences for the order of acquisition.

In part IV, neurophysiological aspects of language
acquisition are addressed. In the first article, Morfese
provides an excellent overview of studies using ERP
(event-related potential) procedures to study infant and
toddler word acquisition. Interestingly, it describes
studies investigating speech perception and phonology,
which is a well-covered area in this type of research, as
well as studies on early word acquisition and word

As the two remaining articles show a considerable overlap
with this review article, their inclusion seems

Finally, Part V groups together studies on additional
perspectives to language acquisition, addressing
questions of methodology, the nature of linguistic
primitives, and the development of bird song as compared
to human language acquisition.

Plunkett's excellent article on interactionist approaches
reviews contributions of behavioural, neuropsychological
and computational studies to the field of acquisition,
focusing on speech perception, word recognition and the
acquisition of inflectional morphology. He makes a case
for a multi-disciplinary approach to language
acquisition, stressing that linguistic development should
be seen as 'the interaction of powerful general learning
mechanisms with a richly structured environment that
provides the necessary ingredients for the emergence of
mature linguistic representations'.

In general, the selected articles reflect experimental
psycholinguistic work, with little reference to current
generative theories such as Optimality Theory. Still,
'Approaches to Bootstrapping' presents an excellent (if
not state-of-the-art) interdisciplinary overview of
recent developments in first language acquisition
research. It is regrettable that it has taken such a long
time to publish this important book, but it is
undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the field. It will
be useful as a reference book for scholars from a wide
range of interests within psychology and linguistics. It
is not introductory, and as such not suitable as a

Jusczyk, P. W. (1997). The discovery of spoken language.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER I am in the first year of my PhD studies at Utrecht University, investigating the acquisition of morpho- phonological alternations by Dutch-speaking children. My interests are the development of phonological representations for perception and production and the phonology-morphology interface.