Minimalist inquiries into child and adult language acquisition

Minimalist inquiries into child and adult language acquisition: Case studies across Portuguese. Ed. by Acrisio Pires and Jason Rothman. (Studies on language acquisition 35.)  Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. viii, 354. ISBN 9783110215342. $168 (Hb).

Reviewed by Dimitrios Ntelitheos, United Arab Emirates University

This is a selection of papers discussing the first (L1), second (L2), and third (L3) language acquisition of Portuguese. Acrisio Pires and Jason Rothman provide a description of the field with sections that explain the minimalist program, the relationship between language development and microparametric linguistic variation, language change and language development, and how all these issues interrelate when applied to a Portuguese context. The editors begin with this work in ‘Child and adult language acquisition, linguistic theory and (microparametric) variation’ (5–34). The remainder of this book is divided into two sections that each focus on child and adult language acquisition.

Part 1 ‘First language acquisition’ contains articles about child language development. Leticia Sicuro Corrêa, in ‘Bootstrapping language acquisition from a minimalist standpoint: On the identification of ɸ-features in Brazilian Portuguese’ (35–62), discusses how a sensitivity to morphophonological alternations and the presumption of agreement between syntactically related elements are necessary requirements for identifying phi-features in Brazilian Portuguese. João Costa and Maria Lobo show in ‘Clitic omission in the acquisition of European Portuguese: Data from comprehension’ (63–84) that children understand the null object construction and are less restrictive than adults in that they accept null objects in island contexts. In ‘Speculations about the acquisition of wh-questions in Brazilian Portuguese’ (85–104), Elaine Grolla contrasts the development of wh-questions in Sao Paulo (SPP) and Bahia (BAP) Brazilian Portuguese. While SPP children start with wh-movement, BAP children seem to start with in situ questions. She argues that the latter are actually cases of movement and in situ structures are in fact costly and are predicted to emerge late. The discussion returns to null objects in Brazilian Portuguese, in ‘Aspect and the acquisition of null objects in Brazilian Portuguese’ (105–28) by Ruth Vasconcellos Lopes. The author shows a drastic drop of imperative forms at around 2;1 with simultaneous anaphoric null objects at the onset of a perfective/imperfective distinction and the emergence of aspectual adverbs. The author claims that this is due to the emergence of an Asp projection.

In ‘Acquisition of Brazilian Portuguese in late childhood: Implications for syntactic theory and language change’ (129–54) by Acrisio Pires and Jason Rothman, the authors implement a morphological recognition task (MRT) to show that while different age groups show sensitivity to finite and non-inflected non-finite morphology, significant differences are found with respect to inflected infinitives across the different groups. Only the thirteen to fifteen year-old group exhibited a target-like performance while the ten to twelve year old group failed in this task. Finally, Ana Lúcia Santos argues against earlier approaches that differentiate understanding of ellipsis contexts between adults and children in her article, ‘Early VP ellipsis: Production and comprehension evidence’ (155–76). The results obtained from a comprehension test indicate that children can use the context successfully to interpret omitted material.

Part 2 ‘Adult and second language acquisition’ contains articles about older learners of Portuguese. Jennifer Cabrelli-Amaro, Michael Iverson, and Tiffany Judy, in their article ‘Informing adult acquisition debates: N-Drop at the initial state of L3 Brazilian Portuguese’ (177–96), show that adults acquire both new interpretable and uninterpretable nominal features by the stable state of L2 acquisition and these features can be transferred at the initial stage of L3 acquisition. Maria Fruit Bell probes the syntax-discourse interface in European Portuguese in ‘Divergence at the syntax-discourse interface: Evidence from the L2 acquisition of contrastive focus in European Portuguese’. She demonstrates that when L2 learners are faced with optionality, they will either employ only the L1 option and use it as the main option, or they will acquire and use the L2 option but still maintain the L1 option as a possibility. Michael Iverson, in ‘Competing SLA hypotheses assessed: Comparing heritage and successive Spanish bilinguals of L3 Brazilian Portuguese’ (221–44), tests knowledge of gender agreement and noun-drop in two distinct groups: heritage speakers and speakers who were exposed first to English and acquired Spanish later. The results indicate that both groups exhibit native-like behavior and thus, support the full access hypothesis of L3 acquisition.

In ‘Brazilain Portuguese and the recovery of lost clitics through schooling’ (245–72), Mary A. Kato, Sonia L. Cyrino, and Vilma Reche Corrêa find that pre-school children and illiterate speakers lack third person clitics but at the end of their schooling, seem to recover clitics in their written texts. The acquisition of clitics in L2 European Portuguese is discussed by Ana Maria Madeira and Maria Francisca Xavier in ‘The acquisition of clitic pronouns in L2 European Portuguese’ (273–300). The authors show that both Germanic and Romance language learners are aware very early of the existence of different patterns of clitic placement, although the conditions that control these patterns are not fully acquired. Finally, Silvina Montrul, Rejane Dias, and Ana Thomé-Williams, in ‘Subject expression in the non-native acquisition of Brazilian Portuguese’ (301–26), discuss subject expression in L2 Brazilian Portuguese. Their results show that subjects with pro-drop and non-pro drop L1s acquire the system with no particular problems, indicating that a strong version of the full-transfer hypothesis is not entirely consistent with the data. A. Carlos Quicoli concludes this volume in ‘Afterword’ (327–40) by summarizing the significance of both the theoretical findings and experimental methodology mentioned in the papers collected for this volume.

This volume is an important contribution to the field of first, second, and third language acquisition. People interested in the application of minimalist theories in language acquisition as well as researchers in the fields of language development and morphosyntax can gain useful insights from this collection.