Handbook of generative approaches to language acquisition

Handbook of generative approaches to language acquisition. Ed. by Jill de Villiers and Tom Roeper. (Studies in theoretical psycholinguistics 41.) Dordrecht: Springer, 2011. Pp. 410. ISBN 9789400716872. $189 (Hb).

Reviewed by Dimitrios Ntelitheos, United Arab Emirates University

This book is a collection of articles summarizing some of the most important research projects within generative approaches to language acquisition. The book starts with a contribution by Nina Hyams, who discusses missing subjects in early child language. Hyams surveys a number of different theories accounting for the phenomenon, including those based on grammatical, pragmatic, prosodic, and processing factors. She concludes that null subjects can be explained by assuming a parametric option for children, but that other factors may also be at play, making the phenomenon more complex than initially assumed. Ken Wexler discusses the optional infinitive (OI) stage, characterized by the use of infinitival verbal forms in root contexts. He develops a maturational account of the relevant data, where children lack the ability to check more than one feature of the subject DP. The article offers a detailed discussion of empiricist models of the OI stage and shows that they cannot adequately capture the range of properties associated with this stage.

Charles Yang discusses computational models of language acquisition, including issues related to learnability theory, distributional learning models, learning as selection of the right model, and the subset principle, stressing that computational models of language development must be informed by linguistic and psychological studies of child language. Kamil Ud Deen explores the acquisition of passive structures. He shows that earlier assumptions about late acquisition of passive structures may not be accurate and that children have knowledge of the passive in earlier stages than previously assumed. Tom Roeper and Jill De Villiers turn the discussion to the acquisition of wh-questions, exploring movement rules in simple sentences, the logical properties of wh-structures, and crosslinguistic wh-movement constraints. Issues of binding and coreference are discussed in Cornelia Hamann’s contribution, which explores the interpretation of pronouns and related acquisition results. A critical discussion of binding theory, issues of bound variable configurations and coreference, the typology of anaphors, and crosslinguistic variation is followed by acquisition facts pertaining to pronoun-reflexive asymmetries and exceptional case marking (ECM) constructions.

Koji Sugisaki and Yukio Otsu review studies of the acquisition of Japanese syntax, evaluating the universal grammar approach to language acquisition. They show that abstract grammatical properties relate to certain syntactic phenomena of Japanese, such as case marking, floating numeral quantifiers, and wh-in-situ, are already present in the early stages of child grammar. Julien Musolino investigates grammatical isomorphism in the case of quantification. The author explores how children interpret isomorphic sentences but also builds a broader research program with extensions in learnability theory, the development of processing and pragmatic abilities, and linguistic theory in general. Finally, William Philip continues the discussion of quantification with an examination of the acquisition of universal quantification, including knowledge of the logical operation and related linguistic constraints. In addition, Philip presents the particular case of the exhaustive pairing comprehension error together with a new account based on new experimental results.

This book is essential reading for linguists interested in language acquisition studies and especially for both researchers and students seeking state-of-the-art reviews of some of the most important questions raised within generative approaches to language development.