Young journey from ga-ga to grammar

Pathways to Language
October 4, 2002

This beautifully written, clearly structured book succeeds in making the intricacies of all aspects of language development accessible to the general reader. It communicates the authors' enthusiasm for their subject, and never loses sight of the reality of the developing child.

The book has eight chapters, most of which could be read as stand-alone sections, although more will be gained by a complete reading of the book.

The first chapter provides a succinct overview of major issues in language acquisition and a summary of the focus of each chapter. The book is jargon free, and where technical terms are introduced, the authors present clear definitions and examples to illustrate them.

Three areas of investigation are presented in chapter two - speech perception, language production and comprehension - which combine to provide an overall picture of language acquisition. The chapter describes the methodologies and techniques used in each area, carefully elucidating their underlying logic and limitations. Fluent writing and copious illustrations and examples animate what could be a dry and difficult topic.

The development of speech perception, which begins in the womb, is considered in chapter three. Very young infants quickly develop segmentation strategies and use stress patterns and phonotactic constraints to identify word and clause boundaries. Thus, before understanding words or grammar infants' sensitivity to speech is already quite sophisticated.

Chapters four, five and six deal respectively with the learning of word meanings, the acquisition of grammar and the processing of language beyond the level of the sentence. Each chapter sets out the sequence of normal development and provides a critical overview of different theoretical accounts. Concepts potentially difficult for the layperson are made transparently simple, something that can be accomplished only by authors who have total command of their subject. For example, in reading their account of Noam Chomsky's nativist theory, for the first time ever I felt I could understand principles and parameters theory. Nonetheless, I did find this the most difficult chapter, and one in which the suggestions for supplementary reading were most welcome. The authors take a balanced approach to the plethora of theories presented, point out the limitations of each, and suggest that ultimately all have a contribution to make to our understanding.

Much of the information on development is potentially important for teachers in foundation and key stages one and two. Discussion of the kinds of input that enable people to acquire vocabulary could be used to inform teacher-child conversation; understanding that KS2 children have continuing difficulty with the production of oral narratives could help teachers to justify modifying their attempts to enable children to achieve the text writing demands of the National Literacy Strategy.

Atypical language development is explored in chapter seven, using discussion of language development in deaf and blind children and those with early focal brain damage to argue for the resilience of language development. It considers children with specific language impairment, categorising different types of impairment - useful knowledge again for mainstream teachers. In comparing children with Williams syndrome and Down's syndrome, it argues against the conclusions sometimes reached from such comparisons, that there is an innate module for computing grammar.

The final chapter presents the authors' views on the perennially interesting nature-nurture debate, and reiterates their view that humans are not uniquely endowed with an innate universal grammar. Rather, evolution has supplied a "wide variety of learning mechanisms" and a "very long developmental period" that allow us to learn.

I strongly recommend this lively book as prescribed reading for practising teachers, teacher training and undergraduate psychology courses. As an unflinching and motivating introduction to an area that many find difficult, it is unmatched.

Morag Stuart is reader in the psychology of reading, Institute of Education, London.

Pathways to Language: From Fetus to Adolescent

Author - Kyra Karmiloff and Annette Karmiloff-Smith
ISBN - 0 674 00476 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 256

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