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Related Topics
Corpora in Language Acquisition ResearchReview - Corpora in Language Acquisition Research
History, methods, perspectives
by Heike Behrens (Editor)
John Benjamins, 2008
Review by Christina Behme
Jul 7th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 28)

Implementing new experimental and neurolinguistic techniques in child language research has produced a wealth of results in recent years. Yet, as the current volume shows, "corpora still form the backbone for a number of questions in the field, especially in studying new phenomena or new languages" (p. xi). The eight chapters cover a thematic variety ranging from the history of corpora, experimental design and data base development and maintenance questions to cross-linguistic differences in plural acquisition, the predictive power of linguistic cues in acquisition of argument structure and computational models of multiple cue integration. All chapters are fairly technical and require familiarity with the subject matter covered. Thus, this is not an introductory textbook; it aims at "child language researchers from all over the world" (p. ix). In addition it can inform experts in some other fields (e.g., research methodology, philosophy of language, cognitive science). Since a detailed discussion doing justice to all chapters would require writing another book I will focus in this review on two chapters. The choice of these two is based on personal interest and does in no way reflect on the quality of the remaining chapters.

Caroline Rowland, Sarah Fletcher and Daniel Freudenthal's chapter ("How big is big enough?") addresses the implications of sampling techniques on our interpretation of children's production data. This is a growing concern because on the one hand modern collection techniques have provided researchers with a vast array of raw data. On the other hand the time required for transcription (6 to 20 hours per hour recorded speech) and detailed analysis of data places restrictions on the amount of data that can be used for research. The challenge is to find an amount of data that allows to capture the production errors that occur in early language acquisition. This is important because "[l]ow error rates have traditionally been seen as the hallmark of rapid acquisition and are often used to support theories attributing children with innate...knowledge" (p. 2). Proponents of such theories (e.g., Catell, 2006; Chomsky, 1975; 1986; 2006; Crain et al., 2007; Crain & Pietrosky, 2001; Isac & Reiss, 2008; Matthews, 2006; McGilvray, 2006; Smith, 1999) claim that children  must have access to innate language specific knowledge because they are producing the relevant constructions (e.g., wh-questions, modal auxiliaries etc.) error free in spite of not being exposed to correct examples and/or correction by caregivers. Rowland et al. demonstrate that the absence of errors in production samples can have two reasons: either these errors do indeed not occur or they do occur but are not captured by the relatively coarse grained sampling density of analyzed productions (usually well below 10% of the complete language output). This is of course especially true for short-lived errors and errors occurring in low frequency structures; exactly the kinds of errors relevant to the innatenes debates. The seemingly obvious solution to this problem (increasing sampling density) is often not feasible because for errors that occur on average only once per day the sampling rate would have to exceed 30 hours/week (extrapolated from Figure 2, p. 12) to capture reliably the occurrence (but not the frequency) of these errors. Since an increase of this magnitude is currently not cost-effective Rowland et al. suggest several alternatives to simply increasing sampling density (interval sampling, targeted sampling, situational sampling, elicited imitation games, calculation of mean error rates across a range of samples). In addition the authors also stress that the production of grammatically correct constructions does not necessarily entail that young children have mastered the abstract knowledge of grammatical categories. Instead, these children could "produce certain high frequency examples of grammatical categories...with only partial productive lexically specific knowledge (p. 17, see also Tomasello, 2000; 2003). Thus, it is important to adjust the sampling regime to account for the differences between child- and adult- language in order to achieve accurate estimates of children's productivity.

 Padraic Monaghan and Morten Christiansen's chapter ("Integration of multiple cues in syntax acquisition") demonstrates that language contains multiple sources of information that can allow children to derive syntactic knowledge from the language input long before they have access to other sources of information (e.g., explicit instruction). This touches again on an important issue in the debate with proponents of UG. In the past defenders of UG have suggested that the complexity of language makes it implausible that distributional information of patterns within language could play a significant role in the acquisition of syntactic categories (Chomsky, 1975; Crain 1991; Crain & Pietroski, 2002). While this concern seems justified when cues are considered in isolation Monaghan & Christiansen show that the situation changes when a combination of several of the available extra-and intra-linguistic cues (e.g., acoustic, prosodic, phonological, distributional cues) is taken into account. Furthermore, it becomes evident that "the same type of information may function as probabilistic cue at different levels of linguistic analysis" (p.161). That is, phonological information can help the child recognizing word boundaries and distinguishing nouns and verbs from other words of the segmented corpus. Cue integration is not only shown in a wide variety of  corpora collected from child directed speech (e.g., table 1, pp147-8, combining the results of 16 empirical studies conducted from 1969-2007) but additionally Monaghan & Christiansen refer to experiments with artificial language learning and to computer simulations that support their conclusion that the many different cues available in the child's linguistic environment "provide coherent and reliable information when considered in concert" (p. 163). While it is not proven yet that this information would be sufficient to account for all aspects of syntax acquisition it is certainly vastly richer than assumed by poverty of the stimulus arguments. This refers of course only to the information that can be gathered from cues we have investigated so far and Monaghan & Christiansen indicate that the known cues are likely only a sub-set of all cues available to the language learning child. Here the politically sensitive reader might be puzzled by the inclusion of an abbreviated Rumsfeld (2002) quote (p. 163), especially given that the same thought had been expressed more than a century earlier and with more elegance by Henry David Thoreau, but even s/he probably will agree that this does not diminish the quality of the contribution.

As already stated, this volume is aimed at a fairly narrow audience and the quality of the work presented should make it a valuable resource for this intended audience.  Apart from very infrequent and insignificant spelling errors all papers are well written and researched. I would have preferred to have reference sections at the end of each chapter as opposed to one general reference section for the entire volume. I am also somewhat concerned about the fact that virtually all authors defend 'usage based' models of acquisition and believe that the inclusion of at least one or two chapters defending an opposing view (UG) might have resulted in a book that better reflects the still existing diversity of language acquisition views and engages the dialogue with proponents of such views. But this does not diminish the quality of the work presented and I would recommend the volume without hesitation.

 

References

 

Cattell, Ray. (2006). An Introduction to Mind, Consciousness and Language. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Chomsky, N. (1975). Reflections on language. New York: Pantheon Books.

Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of Language. New York: Praeger Publishing

Chomsky, N. (2006). Language and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crain, S. (1991). Language acquisition in the absence of experience. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 14, 597–650.

Crain, S., Goro, T. & Minai, U. (2007). Hidden units in child language. In: A. Schalley, A. & Khlentzos, D. (Eds.) Mental States: Nature, Function and Evolution. pp. 275-294. John Benjamins.

Crain, S., & Pietroski, P. (2002). Why language acquisition is a snap. Linguistic Review, 19, 163–183.

Crain, S. and P. Pietroski (2001). Nature, nurture and Universal Grammar. Linguistics and Philosophy 24, 139-186.

Isac, D., & Reiss, C. (2008). I-language: an introduction to linguistics as cognitive science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matthews, R. (2006). The case for linguistic nativism. In. Stainton, R. (Ed.) Contemporary debates in cognitive science. (pp. 81 - 96). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

McGilvray, J. (2006). On the innateness of language. In. Stainton, R. (Ed.) Contemporary debates in cognitive science. (pp. 97 - 112). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Rumsfeld, D. (2002). Press Conference at NATO Headquarters: Brussels, Belgium.

Smith, N. (1999). Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2000). Do young children have adult syntactic competence? Cognition, 74, 209–253.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

© 2009 Christina Behme

 

Christina Behme. Philosophy Department, Dalhousie University


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