The development of grammar

The development of grammar: Language acquisition and diachronic change. Ed. by Esther Rinke and Tanja Kupisch. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. 414. ISBN 9789027219312 $113 (Hb).

Reviewed by Dennis Ryan, University Writing and Language Consultants

This book originates from workshop papers on language development delivered by former students and colleagues to honor Jurgen M. Meisel, Professor of French, Spanish, and Portuguese at the University of Hamburg. Meisel has spent his career focusing on language development, revealing important similarities and crucial differences in first-language (L1) and second-language (L2) acquisition, including that the processes are fundamentally different. Meisel has also demonstrated empirically that bilinguals from birth learn languages in basically the same way as monolinguals.

In keeping with Meisel’s research, articles in Part 1 examine similarities and differences in L1- and L2 acquisition. For example, Suzanne Schlyter, in ‘Tense and aspect in early French development’ (47–74), concludes that early-age learners of French between 3–5 and seven years ‘having Swedish as a first or concomitant language’ (47) show clear language-learning differences from bilinguals. They surprisingly use more tense forms than child bilinguals and refer to the distant past in passé composé (the past-perfect tense), which child bilinguals do not.

In Part 2, ‘The acquisition of sentence structure and functional categories’, Tom Roeper argues for ‘strict interfaces where semantics, pragmatics and syntax must coincide’ (205), but he also asks how interfaces are to be represented. Roeper concludes that ‘greater … innateness of grammar is entailed by this vision of interfaces … non-linguistic abilities [being] biologically bundled with the UG in a way that requires species-specific innateness’ (226), thus conceptually enlarging our understanding of ‘interface’.

Part 3, ‘Autonomous development vs. crosslinguistic influence in bilingual first language acquisition’, is indebted to Meisel’s pioneering work in child bilingualism. Cristina Maria Moreira Flores and Andréia Schurt Rauber in ‘Perception of German vowels by bilingual Portuguese-German returnees’ (287–305) use a categorical discrimination test, the results of which show that bilingual Portuguese children, aged 5–10 years, who have returned to Portugal from Germany and never used German again, still have the ability to clearly discriminate German vowel contrasts.

Part 4, ‘Language acquisition, language contact and diachronic change’, is the subject of one of Meisel’s research projects. Language change does not happen often, and Meisel believes multilingualism and language contact represent ‘likely scenario[s] for … change’ (9–10). In this context, in ‘Acquisition in the context of language change, the case of Brazilian Portuguese null subjects’ (309–30), Mary Aizawa Kato discusses the ‘selective loss of null subjects’ (309), when Brazilian children do not acquire null forms when learning the language, but only later during schooling.

Meisel has impacted the personal and professional lives of a large number of colleagues and students, and they in turn have produced significant work, as evidenced in this book. Of concern, however, at least to this reviewer, is the ongoing reliance of generativists on Minimalist glosses (e.g. ‘fix the value of a parameter not instantiated in the L1’), that even as a shorthand that expedites discussion and ongoing research simultaneously suggests a club atmosphere that limits its membership by excluding scholars who do not speak the language.