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Editorial: language acquisition in diverse linguistic, social and cognitive circumstances

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Editorial on the Research Topic
Language Acquisition in Diverse Linguistic, Social and Cognitive Circumstances

The language experience of children growing up in linguistically diverse environments is subject to considerable variation both in terms of input quantity and quality and these factors are predictive of future language abilities (e. g. Hart and Risley, 1995 ). While virtually all typically developing (TD) children acquire language competence, there are large differences in the extent to which vocabulary and higher-level linguistic skills develop, especially in children with atypical language development. This research topic encouraged a debate around the linguistic and environmental factors at play in a set of diverse environments for language acquisition. Language acquisition cannot be investigated without a clear description of the linguistic phenomena that need to be acquired. It is not clear, for example, why some phenomena are acquired later and some earlier; and if differences between children in processing are an effect of differences in competence, or differences in levels of cognitive variables such as non-verbal IQ, working memory, or Executive Functions.

A first theme emerging from the contributions in this research topic is the different trajectories of linguistic phenomena at different developmental stages. Finer aspects of language acquisition do not come from the environment but from maturational changes in early learners. This is the case in Belletti and a study of the children’s ability to answer direct object questions. Productions reported by Italian children are non-attested in adults’ grammar but are compatible with an immature grammatical system. The study supports the idea that input is not a sufficient variable to explain development and also the outcomes of the study are compatible with developmental trajectories.

A further step in the debate on how to integrate environmental and internal (biological) factors was discussed in a study on German preschool children’s comprehension of Relative Clauses (RC). Age modulated the comprehension of Object RCs, with older children being more sensitive to pure grammatical distinctions compared to younger children who were more affected by non-linguistic cues ( Adani et al. ).

The comprehension of RCs in a trilingual group of children with Cantonese (L1), Mandarin (L2), and English (L3) was investigated by Chan et al. that looked at the effect of limited exposure due to the multilingual environment. Transfer from the head-initial language (English) was reported in the trilingual group in the comprehension of object RCs in Cantonese because of structural overlap and intensive exposure to English. The study points out the importance of identification of vulnerable domains, such as Head noun assignment in object RCs in multilingual Cantonese children acquiring English.

Another group of trilingual children with developmental vulnerability due to scarce input was investigated in a study of vocabulary skills, comparing monolingual, bilingual, and trilingual children ( Mieszkowska et al. ). For the majority language (English) no difference was found across the three groups. However the minority language was reported as incrementally weaker in both bilingual (reduced expressive vocabulary) and trilingual (reduced expressive and receptive vocabulary) children. The authors suggest that the home language needs to be supported more to achieve a developmental trajectory consistent with the dominant language of the environment.

A well-established pattern in TD children is the greater difficulty in interpreting sentences with pronouns (in particular referential antecedents compared to quantified and full vs. reduced pronouns). Few studies have investigated the interpretation of pronouns in L2 learners. A study on adult L2 learners found that beginners’ performance is affected by type of pronoun and antecedent. These results are in line with the grammar of monolingual children, advocating for a general linguistics principle at play in L2 learners ( Slabakova et al. ).

The authors argue that studies of the developmental trajectory of language development should include the acquisition of different word categories. A significant difference between comprehension and production of both nouns and verbs was reported in a study on child learners of two East African Languages. While the findings were in keeping with previous noun-bias work, making the study cross linguistically valid, a quantitative and qualitative difference was reported. The proportion of spoken verbs correlated with increases in vocabulary size, and with more nouns in the first spoken words and verbs in the comprehended ones ( Alcock ).

Hart, B., and Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children . Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

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