Vol. 2. No. 1 R-7 March 1996
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Beyond Names for Things:

Young Children's Acquisition of Verbs

Michael Tomasello and William E. Merriman, eds. (1995)
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. vi + 421.
ISBN 0-8058-1250-4
US $79.95 (cloth)

This is a volume of twelve separate articles, plus an introductory article which reviews the volume. The volume deals with first language acquisition, or more specifically, the acquisition of verbs by children; it consists of three sections, dealing with conceptual development, basic principles of verb learning, and the role of argument structure in verb acquisition. As ESL/EFL professionals, we might ask: What could we learn from developments in this field? How can we apply what we learn to what we are doing? I will review some of the volume's articles before trying to answer these questions.

The final article, "Hedgehogs, Foxes, and the Acquisition of Verb Meaning," by Michael Maratsos and Gedeon Deak, provides a critical commentary on the twelve articles that precede it. Maratsos' and Deak's primary criticism of the volume is that trying to find simple principles to explain verb acquisition (a "hedgehog approach") is futile. This criticism is basically directed toward Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, Mervis, Frawley, and Parillo ("Lexical Principles Can Be Extended to the Acquisition of Verbs"), who, following up on extensive work done on noun acquisition, defined six principles guiding the acquisition of verbs; and toward Lederer, Gleitman and Gleitman ("Verbs of a Feather Flock Together: Semantic Information in the Structure of Maternal Speech"), who define principles that children must use to analyze argument frames, thus understanding the relationship between the verbs and the rest of the sentences that accompany them. My first impulse is to agree with Maratsos and Deak: the entire system seems so complex that it is incredible that children can master it so quickly. Yet they do, so they must be using principles of some kind.

The editors, Merriman and Tomasello, point out in their introduction ("Introduction: Verbs are Words Too") the fact that researchers have been obsessed with object labels for years, and are only now giving verbs the focus that they deserve. They suggest as one of the reasons for this the fact that most research has been done in English, by researchers who share the language's "object bias." This idea is seconded by Gropnik and Choi ("Names, Relational Words, and Cognitive Development in English and Korean Speakers: Nouns are Not Always Learned Before Verbs"), who add that notions of universals of first language acquisition, including the idea that children use object names well before they talk about actions, relations and events, also spring from this bias. In any event, principles for naming objects are well established. One of these, for example, is the Mutual Exclusivity (ME) Principle: there is [-1-] generally one name for a thing, so children will not apply a novel name to a thing that they know the name of, assuming that the speaker would have used the known name rather than the novel one. An object bias, typical of researchers who have been studying the acquisition of nouns, might lead researchers to hypothesize that children do the same thing with verbs. But there are many reasons that the child can not do this, and results of tests conducted by Merriman, Marazita, and Jarvis ("Children's Disposition to Map New Words Onto New Referents") confirmed this. One reason could be that children observe ME violations more often with verbs; in other words, so many verbs have similar meanings that the child cannot assume that a novel verb would be different from one already known. There are many reasons, however, to conclude that verb acquisition is more complex ("foxlike," according to Maratsos and Deak) than noun acquisition. Verbs are much more bound in the sentences they are embedded in; they are used in different ways and with different inflections; many words can be both nouns and verbs, so that it requires syntactic understanding to identify them; and finally, an acquisition of relational words is necessary to understand how verbs are related to their referents, to understand, for example, how I hunted with Charlie differs from I hunted for Charlie. Finally, Merriman, Marazita and Jarvis were led to conclude that "very little is known about children's verb mapping" (p. 180).

Gropnik and Choi's article is by far the most provocative. They point out that relational words are learned and used fairly early in English, because children need them to express meaning. In Korean, however, they are included in the verbs themselves, which, by the way, are sentence-final, and thus also more salient than English verbs (though, according to Golinkoff et al., "the definition of salience is very slippery" [p. 206]). Furthermore, Korean mothers use more verbs in their speech, since nouns are more likely to be omitted in Korean. Gropnik and Choi found Korean children acquiring and using verbs faster than English-speaking children; they found that "the children's linguistic differences were reflected in their cognitive performance in a positively Whorfian way" (p. 77); and that "there appears to be a very thorough bidirectional interaction between cognition and language in this period" (p. 78). Thus Korean children learned to express concepts (for example, disappearance, or success/failure) with verbs; they were shown to have learned concepts at different times than English-speaking children; and finally, they had a "naming spurt" later than English-speaking children, but a "verb spurt" earlier. In attacking the basic assumption that conceptual development and the naming spurt are universals of development that are supposed to apply to all children, they have returned to a Whorfian analysis. The Whorf Hypothesis, that one's language influences, if not determines, the way one views the universe, has been discredited for many years, but is now enjoying a minor resurgence.[-2-]

The revival of the Whorf Hypothesis may be a product of the fact that extensive study of languages completely different from English provides us with data that are impossible to ignore; this may be the most interesting insight that I found in the book. Certainly, however, there is more that we can learn from developments in this field. First, we should be aware of the semantic and syntactic complexities that provide the underpinning of all language, and become more aware of the hugeness of the task of mastering just one. We should reacquaint ourselves with the huge difference between first and second language acquisition, so that we can better analyze the parallels that people in our field tend to make. If this volume taught me anything, it may be that we usually know less than we think we do, and we can sometimes benefit from the perspective offered by developments in other fields.

Thomas Leverett
CESL, SIU-Carbondale


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