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  • Language acquisition and learnability ed. by Stefano Bertolo
  • Lisa DeWaard Dykstra
Language acquisition and learnability. Ed. by Stefano Bertolo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. viii, 247. ISBN 0521646200. $24.

Stefano Bertolo’s collection of articles on language acquisition and learnability theory attempts to bridge three disciplines to better approach the problem of second language acquisition. In his opening statement, the editor provides a rationale for combining linguistics, psychology, and learnability theory into a theory of natural language learnability, claiming that each discipline contributes a different and necessary piece of the puzzle. The introduction further develops this rationale and provides the framework upon which the remaining articles are based, with three main goals: (1) It acknowledges the role that the principles and parameters hypothesis plays in the development of theory in the subsequent articles; (2) It identifies five essential components of the learning problem (presented as questions); (3) It provides the working definitions upon which the rest of the book is based.

Martin Atkinson continues this dialogue with his contribution on the learnability of syntax. In it, he provides a thorough overview of the development of learnability theory, providing support for his argument by framing it in the context of children’s linguistic environments (e.g. negative evidence, input complexity). He goes on to discuss subset principles and parameters and then concludes with the TLA (triggering learning algorithm) and its applicability to the setting of parameters.

In the third chapter, ‘Language change and learnability’, Ian Roberts is concerned with the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of language change. He asserts that ‘parameter values can change as a function of time’ (81) and that ‘the standard paradigm for language acquisition is not immediately compatible with [this] observation’ (83). He then proceeds to develop a parameter-setting algorithm which he tests in several case studies involving language change, concluding that language change provides additional evidence for learnability theory.

Robin Clark, in the chapter entitled ‘Information theory, complexity and linguistic descriptions’, uses a variety of mathematical techniques (probability theory, information theory, and other computational approaches to linguistic description) to examine syntactic variation, specifically the question of what constitutes a parameter.

Finally, William G. Sakas and Janet Dean Fodor examine the question of language acquisition difficulties, especially for adult learners. An analysis of parameter setting (specifically the elements of trigger recognition, value adoption, and value resetting) yields the conclusion that triggering cannot be effectively implemented in natural languages.

The book is a thorough investigation of learnability theory and its application to language acquisition theory. It is wide in scope and methodology. Due to the sophisticated nature of the terminology used, as well as the reliance on complex theories of learnability, this book is most useful for researchers and advanced graduate students in linguistics who have a thorough grounding in learnability theory. Exercises are provided throughout each chapter, highlighting important concepts and providing opportunity for the application of presented theory.

Lisa DeWaard Dykstra
University of Iowa


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p. 792
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