Vol. 2. No. 1 R-6 March 1996
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Early Language Development in Full-Term and Premature Infants

Paula Menyuk, Jacqueline W. Liebergott, and Martin C. Schultz (1995)
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. viii + 248
ISBN 0-8058-1773-5.
US $24.50 (paper)

Elementary ESL teachers can gain insights into how their students acquire their second language by looking at research into how children acquire their first language, because the process of second language acquisition in young children is very similar to that of first language acquisition. There is a great deal of information available about first language acquisition, ranging from Leopold's (1939, 1947, 1949a, 1949b) monumental four-volume description of his daughter's bilingual language acquisition to basic textbooks (Menyuk, 1988; Ingram, 1989; Bloom, 1994, Owens, 1996) and recent "state-of-the-art" reviews (Perera, 1994). In spite of all the information available, many areas of controversy remain. One of them concerns the relative influence of nature vs. nurture in first language acquisition. Although the results of the study reported in Early Language Development in Full-Term and Premature Infants will not resolve the theoretical arguments between nativists and social interactionists, they do provide a solid contribution to our knowledge of how biological, cognitive and input factors affect first language development.

This book is the report of a longitudinal study of 53 children from birth to age 3. The authors compared the language development of children who were born prematurely with that of full-term infants in order to assess biological factors. They gave the children periodic measures of cognitive development in order to assess cognitive factors. They performed a detailed analysis of the input received by the children and the conversational interaction in which they were engaged in order to assess input factors. Statistical analysis was used to determine the influence of each factor and interaction of the three factors.

The first chapter in the book describes the design of the study and th e second chapter provides detailed information about all the measurements used. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 describe the children's language development during the first, second and third years of life. Chapter 6 describes the mother-child communication interaction observed in the study. Chapter 7 presents a summary of the findings and implications for assessment and intervention.

The findings of the study provide a detailed description of normal language acquisition, including conversational patterns, the acquisition of speech sounds, lexical acquisition, cognitive development, and comprehension and production of words in sentences. [-1-] A very important finding was that, contrary to expectations, there were no differences in language development between the premature babies and the full-term babies. There were likewise no effects of cognitive development on language development. There was no direct effect of the amount or structure of input on the rate or success of language development, but there was an indirect effect of conversational behaviors such as expansions and acknowledgements. The most predictive factors of the children's language proficiency at age 3 (and also four years later at age 7, as assessed in a follow-up study of some of the children) were their early comprehension abilities. All of the children scored above average on the outcome measures, which the authors explain by suggesting that the monthly home visits that were part of the design of the study may have focused the mothers on language development.

This book has many strengths. It provides a very clear and complete presentation of how normal children acquire their first language. It provides detailed data on input and interaction and their effects (or lack of effects) on language development, as well as a complete review of the literature on input factors. Knowledge of which early factors are most predictive for later language development will be valuable for parents and teachers of children whose language may not appear to be developing normally. The book succeeds in accomplishing the goals set forward in the introduction: "...to provide practical information to those who are concerned with the development of young children" (p. vii); "...to examine the impact of such factors as biology, cognition, communication input, and the interaction of these factors...on the course of language development" (p. vii); and "...to provide information to beginning investigators, early childhood educators, and clinicians that can help them in their practice (p. viii)."

The few problems the book has are minor compared to its strengths. It is easy to get lost among the innumerable charts and tables that present the findings in more detail than many readers might wish. For those who are not concerned with the details, reading the introduction and the summary will provide a coherent overview of the study and its findings. More troubling is the fact that the authors often assume their readers will be familiar with technical terms ("Apgar score"), acronyms ("RDS"), and normal ranges of test scores ("115 on the McCarthy"). There are a few typographical errors that don't affect the text, but it does become very confusing when the text refers to information that is not contained in the corresponding table (p. 115), and particularly when several pages worth of tables do not correspond to their descriptions in the text (pp. 158-160).

This study has implications that could potentially be of great importance for ESL teachers who work with young children. One of these is the finding that there is great variability in first [-2-] language development; these normal ly developing children went through many "spurts and plateaus" in the course of their first three years of language development, and there were great individual differences in the children's levels of development at any particular age. We have always known that there is a great deal of variation in child (and adult) second language acquisition. Knowing that this variation also exists in first language acquisition, but that all norm al children acquire language successfully in spite of the variation, should help us stop worrying about slow or irregular development in child second language acquisition.

A second important implication has to do with the importance of early comprehension abilities in predicting later language ability. Although we cannot assume that the same is true of second language learners, if further research were to confirm that it is, we would have strong support for delayed-production teaching approaches such as the Natural Approach and Total Physical Response.

A third area for ESL teachers to consider is the study's findings on the effects of input. It appears from this study that it is the type of conversational interaction that makes a difference in first language acquisition, rather than the amount or the structure of the input. This agrees with previous findings in second language acquisition showing that interaction which allows negotiation of meaning is more important than simply modifying input (Long 1983).

This is a very important book for those who constitute its primary audience: first language acquisition researchers, clinicians and early childhood teachers. Let us hope that it also finds an audience among researchers of second language acquisition in children, who may appreciate the combination of naturalistic data and quantitative analysis used in the study, and among teachers of second languages to children, who can benefit from a knowledge of normal first language development and its implications for second language learning in children.


Bloom, P., ed. (1994). Language acquisition: Core readings. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ingram, D. (1989). First language acquisition: Method, description and explanation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leopold, W. (1939). Speech development of a bilingual child: A linguist's record. Vol I. Vocabulary growth in the first two years. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. [-3-]

Leopold, W. (1947). Speech development of a bilingual child: A linguist's record. Vol II. Sound learning in the first two years. Evanston, IL : Northwestern University Press.

Leopold, W. (1949a). Speech development of a bilingual child: A linguist's record. Vol III. Grammar and general problems. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Leopold, W. (1949b). Speech development of a bilingual child: A linguist's record. Vol IV. Diary from age two. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Long, M. (1983). Linguistic and conversational adjustments to non- native speakers. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 5, 177- 193.

Menyuk, P. (1988). Language development: Knowledge and use. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Owens, R. E., Jr. (1996). Language development: An introduction, 4th ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Perera, K. (1994). Child language research: Building on the past, looking to the future. Journal of Child Language 21, 1-7.

Suzanne Irujo
School of Education
Boston University


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