Meaning in the second language

Meaning in the second language. By Roumyana Slabakova. (Studies on language acquisition 34.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2008. Pp. xi, 326. ISBN 9783110203226. $137 (Hb).

Reviewed by Dennis Ryan, Raleigh, NC

In Meaning in the second language, Roumyana Slabakova examines language acquisition from a generative linguistic perspective. Beginning with child language acquisition, then moving on to adult second language (L2) acquisition, she explores theories of language development that focus on ‘a critical period for language acquisition’ (1), looking at biological explanations for the onset of these critical periods while arguing that various language functions onset in multiple critical stages, specifically at various stages of the interface of the morphosyntactic, semantic, and phonological modules. S subdivides morphosyntax into morphophonology and syntax in terms of mental processing, and the semantic module into lexical semantics and phrasal semantics, which operate independently but in unison with one another.

Ch. 1 summarizes research on the critical period hypothesis. S describes the critical period as ‘a limited developmental period’ during which the language learner acquires a first or second language ‘to normal, native-like levels’ (2). Ch. 2 focuses on how meaning is accessed lexically and phrasally. S discusses language acquisition in terms of minimalist linguistics and Ray Jackendoff’s parallel architecture, which proposes the interaction of semantic, phonological, and syntactic processing modules to produce meaning at the linguistic interface; she finds the latter a language model ‘more compatible with findings from neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics’ (30).

Ch. 3 critically reviews recent studies in psycholinguistics, particularly those that utilize neuroimaging (fMRI) and event-related brain potentials (ERP’s), to repeatedly demonstrate the existence of separate processing modules for semantics and syntax, and that the acquisition of semantics and morphosyntax occurs differentially. Ch. 4 examines the validity of psycholinguistic data to test linguistic performance and concludes that behavioral testing in L1 and L2 remains the primary means of testing theories of language acquisition.

In Ch. 5 , S introduces a ‘bottleneck hypothesis’ to explicate an L2 theory of grammatical competence. She argues for ‘tight places’ in language acquisition (12; 84–85), such as functional morphology (e.g. verb inflections) that can only be learned by repeated practice yet is crucial at all stages of language learning. Ch. 6 offers experimental evidence for the bottleneck hypothesis. S notes that studies have repeatedly found that L2 learners ‘had to reconfigure, or reclassify, the L2 inflectional morphology’ while simultaneously learning the attendant phonological and syntactic features.

Ch. 7 discusses studies of intermediate and advanced language learners negotiating rarer sentence forms; functional morphology again proves the most challenging aspect of language acquisition. Ch. 8 examines L2acquisition research that focuses on what is difficult to learn in the L2, again emphasizing the syntactic and semantic features of inflectional morphology.

This book is exhaustively researched. It synthesizes and extrapolates from language research in several disciplines to present new insights into how meaning is acquired in a second language. Assuming the existence of a universal grammar, the book is an ambitious effort to add a generative linguistic component to L2 acquisition theory and teaching, and S convincingly relates the bottleneck hypothesis to the L2 pedagogy of researchers such as Catherine Doughty, Bill VanPatten, and Robert DeKeyser. The book has only one drawback: it relies almost exclusively on minimalist terminology to explain meaning, thus limiting its audience primarily to linguists working in that approach.