September 1998 — Volume 3, Number 3
Signal to Syntax: Bootstrapping from Speech to Grammar in Early Acquisition
James L. Morgan & Katherine Demuth (Eds.) (1996)
Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xi + 487
ISBN 0-8058-1266-0 (paper)
(also available in cloth: ISBN 0-8058-1265-2, US $69.95)
Handbook of Research in Language Development Using CHILDES
Jeffrey L. Sokolov & Catherine E. Snow (Eds.) (1994)
Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xi + 489
ISBN 0-8058-1186-9 (paper)
(also available in cloth: ISBN 0-8058-1185-0, US $79.95)
A Developmental-Functionalist Approach to Child Language
Nancy Budwig (1995)
Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xii + 224
ISBN 0-8058-0520-6 (cloth)
These are three very useful books for anyone interested in current theory and research in children’s acquisition of their first language. They provide three different but complementary updates of research in this area. They may be less directly useful for those involved in second language teaching and TESL, but given the closer relationship that has developed recently between first and second language acquisition, these volumes should still be useful sourcebooks for language researchers and for those with specialist language acquisition interests.
The thread that holds all three books together is mainly their subject matter–an attempt to understand the complex but fascinating phenomenon of child language acquisition. There is also a second bond they share in their commonality of approach–all owe their broad origins to developmental psycholinguistics. This is the approach that has led to such a wealth of theory and research in child first language acquisition, but perhaps is less common in many other applied linguistic settings (e.g., TESL) where a sociolinguistic orientation has often been more usually applied.
The first volume, Signal to Syntax: Bootstrapping from Speech to Grammar in Early Acquisition, edited by Morgan and Demuth, is a most important theoretical contribution to child language study. It presents a coherent and comprehensive series of chapters that all take as their starting point an attempt to unravel how the adult speech that is addressed to young children might lead to their [-1-] acquisition of the first language. The particular focus in this collection is on the role of prosody. In this it extends and refines Pinker’s (1984) original “prosodic bootstrapping hypothesis.” This was the first systematic theory that focussed on the role of prosody in adult input to children and attempted to explain how certain features of adult speech gave clues to the syntactic structure of the language, which in turn assisted young children in the acquisition of that first language.
The editors assess the present state of this hypothesis in this volume through a collection of 25 interdisciplinary contributions by well-known researchers. These chapters are sensibly grouped into five sections, each dealing with one special aspect of the issue: part I–The nature, perception and representation of input speech; part II–Speech and the acquisition of words; part III–Speech and the acquisition of grammatical morphology and form classes; part IV–Speech and the acquisition of phrase structure; and, part V–Speech and the acquisition of language.
Inevitably, it seems, the more research is conducted into first language acquisition, the more the complexities of this seemingly effortless achievement by young children become apparent. For example, in chapter 23, Gerken points out the three main but very considerable problems that children have to solve in acquiring language. These are: segmentation (i.e., the location of words and phrases in the continuous speech stream); labelling (i.e., making the distinction between the different types of words and phrases, such as nouns and verbs); and, structure (i.e., discovering the hierarchical arrangement of words and phrases).
Overall it seems to be the case from the evidence presented in this excellent volume that there is considerable support for the view that prosody plays an important role in first language acquisition, but not sufficient evidence to support the strong version of the bootstrapping hypothesis (i.e., that prosody is a sufficient explanation for language acquisition). Hence, more work still needs to be done to clarify exactly what role prosody plays in children’s acquisition of their first (and possibly, subsequent) language.
Clearly this is an important book for those interested in fundamental theories of language acquisition, but the implications for this research are important for language teachers as well as researchers.
The second volume, Handbook of Research in Language Development Using CHILDES, addresses the important issue of research methods in child language acquisition. For some time now a database of computerised child language transcripts, the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) has been developed and made available to researchers. This database is associated with Catherine Snow and her colleagues at Harvard University who have been pioneers in the area. [-2-] The database arose from the experience of many child language researchers that collecting child language data (e.g., via transcripts of tape-recorded adult-child speech) was an extremely time-consuming and expensive business and that any one individual could only realistically collect data from samples which were too small for any quantitative analytic purposes (e.g., statistical analyses). The CHILDES database aims to provide researchers with aggregated child language data, by combining computerised data from a number of research studies, thereby offseting the relatively small scale data collections of individual researchers and allowing more sophisticated analyses to be performed.
In this edited volume Jeffrey Sokolov and Catherine Snow provide an extremely useful handbook for those researchers who wish to use the CHILDES database effectively. It also provides an excellent textbook for new and developing researchers in child language research, reflecting the developments of the last two decades. The contributions cover a range of useful aspects of child language research such as the basic measures of child language (Pan), diminutives in the babytalk register (Berko Gleason, Perlmann, Ely & Evans), use of superordinates (Bodin & Snow), phonological analysis of child speech (Bernstein Ratner) and some common features of mothers’ vocabularies (Hu). Broader issues are also examined, such as early morphological development in Spanish (Schnell de Acedo), language profiles of children with special language impairment (Rosenthal Rollins), individual differences (Sokolov & Moreton), young children’s hypotheses about English reflexives (Thomas) and the acquisition of different types of narrative discourse (Wolf, Moreton & Camp). Finally, McWhinney summarises the future for CHILDES-based research.
The articles stand alone, but they are also written as a teaching text, with each chapter having been designed as a lesson in a particular area of child language research. Hence there is a clear attempt to provide clarity in the writing of each chapter and step-by-step instruction in the methods of analysis–with the answers to the various exercises given at the back of the volume.
This book is highly recommended for anyone wishing to research child language. It has obvious usefulness therefore for first language researchers, but it would also be a very helpful reference volume for child language researchers in languages other than English and in second and subsequent languages.
Finally, Nancy Budwig’s 1995 book, A Developmental-Functionalist Approach to Child Language, presents a very interesting attempt to breech the structuralist/functionalist divide by proposing a new developmental-functionalist approach to the study of child language. The book, based on her Ph.D. research, is organised into three parts. In part I, she outlines the foundations of her functionalist approach. She discusses her particular interpretation of [-3-] functionalism, distinguishing it from earlier functionalist approaches (e.g., Skinner’s behaviorism), and describes her focus on self-reference forms (e.g. I, my) in young children’s speech. In Part II, Budwig presents extensive individual case studies of three children, whom she termed “ego-anchored children.” These three children were aged just under 2 years at the commencement of the study with Mean Length of Utterances (MLUs) ranging from 1.72-2.82. Their linguistic usage and development is then compared in the fourth chapter with three “non-ego-anchored children.” These were somewhat older children (28-32 months) with higher MLUs (average MLU=3.0).
From her data, it seemed to be the case that the main difference in self-reference was that whereas the younger children used multiple references to themselves (e.g., I, we, my, own name) with similar frequencies of use, the non-ego-anchored children showed a more developed (and specialised) I/we distinction. Suggestions as to why this might be the case are then made.
Taking a functional rather than the usual structural (form-based) approach, Budwig then analyses the children’s use of I and we, firstly according to standard semantic and pragmatic considerations. Then, as these appear to her to be insufficient to explain the contrasts she found, she presents a core field analysis of the children’s use of the I/we contrast. This leads to new insights into the way that children organise and then reorganise their use of self-reference forms. An interesting feature of the explanation for this is that Budwig does not take the usual developmental explanation to account for differences between the ego-anchored and non-ego-anchored self-reference systems, but claims instead that there are multiple factors in the organisation of self-reference forms and the functions they serve. Further research is needed to explore the nature of the interplay between these factors.
In summary, although these texts were all written primarily for a first language acquisition researcher audience, there would be much of interest to a second language researcher here as well.
Pinker, S. (1984). Language learnability and language development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
University of Tasmania at Launceston
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