First and second language acquisition: Parallels and differences

First and second language acquisition: Parallels and differences. By Jürgen M. Meisel. (Cambridge textbooks in linguistics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 320. ISBN 052155764X. $40.

Reviewed by Alejandrina Cristia, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Language comes effortlessly to the great majority of children, while adults must struggle to learn a new language. This everyday fact has inspired many fundamental scientific questions: how exactly does the process of acquisition differ over the course of the lifespan? How do first and second language acquisition occur when they are simultaneous or sequential, and does this vary depending on the onset age of acquisition? What exactly changes with development and experience that has such a profound impact on language acquisition? All of these questions are broached in this book.

In Ch. 1, ‘The quest for LAD [language acquisition device]’ (1–12), a brief history of early perspectives on second language acquisition brings to the foreground basic questions and concepts, including the conceptual differences between first language (L1), second language (L2), and bilingual (2L1) acquisition. Unless otherwise noted, in this book, L1 is operationalized as monolingual children’s acquisition, L2 as adult learners exposed to a second language, and 2L1 as simultaneous acquisition of two languages from birth or shortly thereafter. Ch. 2, ‘First language development’ (13–61), gives an overview of children’s acquisition of syntax and morphology, summarizing the key questions that have faced the field, such as whether there is a strong continuity between child and adult grammar. Ch. 3, ‘Obvious (observable) similarities and differences between first and second language acquisition’ (62–89), uses the example of acquisition of negation to underline general differences between L1 and L2, which are more carefully inspected in the two chapters that follow.

Ch. 4, ‘The initial state and beyond’ (90–138), presents an example of German verb placement, which serves to illustrate that the starting point of L2 cannot be reduced to either the L1 grammar or the putative initial state of the universal grammar (UG). In Ch. 5, ‘Developing grammatical knowledge’ (139–201), the author summarizes some fundamental differences in the developmental stages exhibited by L1 compared to L2 learners, and argues that L2 acquisition is affected by UG to a lesser extent than L1 acquisition. In Ch. 6, ‘Neural maturation and age’ (202–39), it is proposed that maturation likely explains some of those fundamental acquisition differences, based on the comparison between child L2, adult L2, and 2L1 acquisition. The final chapter, ‘A (tentative) theory of language acquisition’ (240–55), summarizes the author’s perspective on the contents of the language acquisition device, comprised of both grammatical/representational and processing mechanisms, and including both domain-specific and domain-general components.

All chapters include a list of suggested readings and topics for further discussion. There is also a glossary with brief definitions for concepts used throughout the book. Both classical and recent data are thoroughly dissected in the evaluation of carefully articulated arguments. This textbook will be most useful for courses centered on second language morphosyntactic acquisition, particularly if students have a background in generative grammar. Additionally, this book stands alone in its attempt to bring together evidence from monolingual and bilingual acquisition, and child and adult L2, constituting an intriguing read for anyone interested in language development.