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Review of  Kindlicher Spracherwerb im Deutschen [German Language Acquisition in Children]

Reviewer: Eva M Knopp
Book Title: Kindlicher Spracherwerb im Deutschen [German Language Acquisition in Children]
Book Author: Christina Kauschke
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 24.2119

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Kauschke’s monograph surveys the developmental milestones of First Language Acquisition (FLA) drawing on the case of German. She illustrates her description with empirical research findings and individual case studies -- much of the material from her own extensive research on German L1 acquisition. The detailed overview of individual milestones is framed with chapters on research methodology, multilingual development and developmental disorders and, ultimately, an overview of past and present theoretical approaches to the field. She thus adopts Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith’s (2001) structure for a German-speaking audience. As volume 45 of de Gruyter’s “Germanistische Arbeitshefte”, the book is intended for students and scholars in German Studies and general linguistics and as a textbook in introductory and advanced linguistics classes.

Before describing individual milestones, Kauschke presents key concepts and overarching questions in the field of first language acquisition research (Ch. 1 “Grundbegriffe und Leitfragen in der Spracherwerbsforschung”). Here, she takes the opportunity to point out that the chapter division according to linguistic levels of description -- from sound to discourse level -- should not lead readers to assume that first language acquisition follows exactly that well-defined and demarcated chronological route of development. Kauschke introduces the concept of “bootstrapping” to demonstrate how the growth of competences on different linguistic levels interacts with each other and are triggered by one another. Further along, she formulates three central questions that should be answered in the study of FLA (pp. 3-5): 1. What is linguistic knowledge and what does it mean to “know” a language? 2. Is linguistic language inborn or is it learned? And 3. Is language acquired through language-specific or cognitive-general mechanisms?

In Chapter 2, Kauschke gives an overview of prevalent research methods and refers to seminal studies using the respective method to study the acquisition of German. In an overview table (p. 6) she differentiates between indirect methods, such as parent and caretaker questionnaires and direct methods. The latter are subdivided into off-line observation methods, including diaries, spontaneous speech and elicitation methods, and on-line experimental procedures, such as reaction time measuring, eye-tracking or MRT-scans. In this chapter, she also introduces CHILDES and concomitant CHAT-transcription standards, employed when presenting examples from her own case-study research later. By briefly introducing the advantages and disadvantages of each individual method, Kauschke emphasises the multitude of available means and the need to carefully choose and integrate them in order to get conclusive and reliable findings.

The following detailed presentation of research into key developmental steps from sound to discourse (Ch. 3-8) refers back to the individual methods that led to the particular findings. Kauschke uses the classic differentiation into core abilities from early language perception, phonetics and phonology via the acquisition of the lexicon and meaning to morphological, syntactic and pragmatic development. In each of these chapters, she presents key terminology and describes universal developmental patterns as well as German-specific characteristics, while pointing out the interfaces and bootstrapping phenomena that interlink the development of the individual subcomponents. The descriptions of lexical and morphological development (Ch. 5 & 6) are slightly longer and more elaborate than others. Keeping in mind Kauschke’s own extensive research into this particular area of German L1 development, this comes as no surprise. In the following chapter (Ch. 9 “Erwerbschronologie an Fallbeispielen”) individual case studies that summarise the acquisition process during the first and second year of life are used to exemplify the interaction of the developing linguistic subcomponents.

Despite the fact that the textbook’s main aim is to describe the unimpeded monolingual first language acquisition of German, Chapters 10 (“Kindliche Mehrsprachigkeit”) and 11 (“Störungen des Erstspracherwerbs”) briefly introduce the reader to questions and findings of research into special cases of language acquisition, i.e. bi- and multilingual acquisition and acquisitional disorders. With respect to the latter, Kauschke’s own patholinguistic research background again features prominently and her descriptions are developed by showing their applications in speech therapy.

The final chapter (12: “Erklärungsansätze zum Sprachenerwerb”) functions as a more theoretical conclusion to the -- so far -- predominantly descriptive account of German first language acquisition. Kauschke comes back to the central questions posed in the introduction and presents Barrett’s (1999) classification of theoretical approaches to FLA, arranged along the axes of “innate vs. learned abilities” and “domain-specific vs. domain-transcending capacities”. Besides the “classic” opposing views of “Nativism”, “Interactionism” and “Cognitivism” (p. 138), more recent theoretical approaches, such as Tomasselo’s “constructivism” (p. 146) and “emergence” models (p. 147f.), are considered as more integrative answers to the complex psycho- and sociolinguistic phenomenon of FLA. Kauschke concludes that nativist conceptions of a principles-and-parameters based Universal Grammar are being increasingly supplanted by process-oriented models, which assume the existence of a human-specific predisposition that equips every child with effective mechanisms to retrieve from their input the information they need in order to master the complex systems of human languages (p.149).

The bibliography includes special reference to important websites. An index, a chronological table of developmental milestones and a detailed guideline on CHAT transcription conventions in the appendix make the course book also a possible reference book for novice students in the field.

In many ways, the monograph fulfills the aims described by the author herself in the introductory chapter. Given that there are not many German-language textbooks with a decidedly linguistic approach to the FLA of German, Kauschke’s publication is a welcome addition to the recently updated standard introductions by Klann-Delius (2008) and Szagun (2010).

Compared to those, Kauschke takes a more inductive and less-theory driven approach to her subject. She provides the reader with detailed descriptions of developmental milestones for each individual linguistic subcomponent (Ch. 3-9) and the abundance of up-to-date exemplification from current research in her main section is a definite plus. At the same time, the inductive method has drawbacks with regard to the overarching theoretical questions raised in the introduction and re-evaluated in the final chapter. They are lost from view through the main parts of the book. Only in very few instances (e.g. Ch. 5.5 “Erklärungsansätze zum Lexikonerwerb” and 7.4 “Erklärungsansätze zum Syntaxerwerb”) are theoretical debates incorporated in the depiction of the developmental milestones and those could be more explicitly integrated into the theoretical paradigm adopted from Barrett (1995).

These theoretical shortcomings, to some extent, also have an effect on the book’s coherence and comprehensiveness. In places, the reader is overwhelmed by the sheer number of facts, the significance of which does not always become apparent. Additionally, the rather brief subchapter on bi- and multilingual first language acquisition would have profited from a stronger theoretical trajectory by clarifying the explanatory capacity of the study of bilingualism for FLA-research in general; an aspect that Kauschke manages to show better in the following chapter on disorders in acquisition.

Notwithstanding this, Kauschke’s clear structure and choice of wording make it a good textbook for undergraduate students in German linguistics or students who lack a background in linguistics. Technical terms and keywords -- in particular from the English-speaking FLA-realm -- are explained and only basic knowledge of linguistic terminology is presupposed. In addition, the clear taxonomy of research methods and the well integrated reference back to their application into the research of FLA in general and the development of German in particular, make this a valuable, application-oriented course book. This “Arbeitsheft”-character could have been enhanced even further with exercises and/or key-term lists corresponding to the individual subchapters.

All in all, I can recommend Kauschke’s monograph as a German-language introduction to the study of German first language acquisition, but as a course book it should be accompanied by more theory-driven, debate-oriented material.

Barrett, Martyn D. 1995. An introduction to the nature of language and to the central themes and issues in the study of language development. In Martyn D. Barrett (Ed.) The development of language. Hove: Psychology Press. 1-25.

Karmilloff, Kyra & Annette Karmilloff-Smith. 2001. Pathways to language. From fetus to adolescent. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Klann-Delius, Gisela. 2008. Spracherwerb. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Metzler.

Szagun, Gisela. 2011. Sprachentwicklung beim Kind. Ein Lehrbuch. 4th rev. ed. Weinheim: Beltz.
Eva M. Knopp is PhD-student in English Linguistics and post-graduate research assistant at the language learning laboratory of the University of Cologne. Her research interests are in bilingual and second language acquisition, psycholinguistics and literacy learning. She has taught German as a foreign language at the Universities of Edinburgh, St. Andrews, UCL and KCL in the UK and currently teaches undergraduate students in English linguistics at the University of Cologne. Her doctoral research in applied linguistics investigates the interrelations of cognition, language and literacy abilities in bilinguals.