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The Comparative Method of Language Acquisition Research

The Mayan family of languages is ancient and unique. With their distinctive relational nouns, positionals, and complex grammatical voices, they are quite alien to English and have never been shown to be genetically related to other New World tongues. These qualities, Clifton Pye shows, afford a particular opportunity for linguistic insight. Both an overview of lessons Pye has gleaned from more than thirty years of studying how children learn Mayan languages as well as a strong case for a novel method of researching crosslinguistic language acquisition more broadly, this book demonstrates the value of a close, granular analysis of a small language lineage for untangling the complexities of first language acquisition.

Pye here applies the comparative method to three Mayan languages—K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol—showing how differences in the use of verbs are connected to differences in the subject markers and pronouns used by children and adults. His holistic approach allows him to observe how small differences between the languages lead to significant differences in the structure of the children’s lexicon and grammar, and to learn why that is so. More than this, he expects that such careful scrutiny of related languages’ variable solutions to specific problems will yield new insights into how children acquire complex grammars. Studying such an array of related languages, he argues, is a necessary condition for understanding how any particular language is used; studying languages in isolation, comparing them only to one’s native tongue, is merely collecting linguistic curiosities.

304 pages | 12 halftones, 1 line drawing, 90 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Language and Linguistics: General Language and Linguistics, Language Studies, Psycholinguistics and Language Acquisition


"This book offers a thorough analysis of the comparative method of language acquisition research as well as walking the reader through how children acquire the unique features of three Mayan languages K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol. . . . it will appeal to anyone interested in historical linguistics, Mayan languages,as well as first and second language acquisition."

Journal of Linguistics

“This is an important book, exemplifying a novel approach that Pye has been developing and refining for twenty years. Pye’s thesis is that if one wants to understand how children learn their first language, it is not sufficient to study the acquisition of just one language in isolation—the study needs to be comparative, and to show how children adapt their learning strategies in relation to the structure of the language being learned. And further, he argues that the best way of doing this is to study several related languages, so that it is possible to establish precise cross-language equivalences of the morphemes, words, and syntactic structures being compared. All scholars of child first language acquisition should find this book of interest, partly for the methodological challenges it poses, and partly also for Pye’s findings for three Mayan languages, which are of major theoretical significance. This is an original contribution that presents a strong challenge to the predominant paradigm for studying how children learn language.”

Penelope Brown, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

“I cannot emphasize enough the uniqueness of this book. There is no one doing language acquisition analysis of this kind in any comparable context. No one has tackled language acquisition and reached a depth of understanding in an entire language family as Pye has. Mayan languages provide him typological characteristics distinctive from the classical languages of historical linguistics and properties not so easily captured by much of modern linguistic theory. Pye is very clear and diligent in his analyses, and his comparative method has the promise to provide a model for future research in a much wider range of language families. Nothing comparable to this book is likely to come along any time soon, if at all.”

David Ingram, Arizona State University

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Comparing Languages
1.1 The Monolingual Approach to Crosslinguistic Research
1.2 The Unit of Comparison Problem
1.3 Why Is Crosslinguistic Research Needed?
1.4 The Comparative Method of Crosslinguistic Research
1.5 The Comparative Method and Usage-Based Approaches to Language Acquisition

Chapter 2. A History of Crosslinguistic Research on Language Acquisition
2.1 The Period of Single Language Studies
2.2 The Search for Language Universals
2.3 Parameter Theory
2.4 Crosslinguistic Surveys
2.5 The Acquisition of Polysynthesis
2.6 Building a Comprehensive Description of Language Acquisition

Chapter 3. The Comparative Method of Language Acquisition Research
3.1 The Comparative Method of Historical Linguistics
3.2 The Acquisition of Negation in the Germanic Languages
3.3 The Acquisition of Verb Inflection in the Germanic languages
3.4 Conclusion

Chapter 4. The Structure of Mayan Languages
4.1 The Synthetic Structure of Mayan Languages
4.2 The Mayan Lexicon
4.3 The Mayan Verb Complex
4.3.1 Mayan Person Marking
4.3.2 Mayan Verb Suffixes
4.4 Stative Predicates
4.5 Mayan Nominalization
4.6 Summary
4.7 Mayan Syntax
4.8 The Mayan Communities
4.9 The Acquisition Database for the Mayan Languages
4.9.1 The K’iche’ Language Samples
4.9.2 The Mam Language Samples
4.9.3 The Ch’ol Language Samples

Chapter 5. The Acquisition of the Mayan Lexicon
5.1 Mayan Lexical Categories
5.1.1 Nouns
5.1.2 Relational Nouns
5.1.3 Adjectives
5.1.4 Verbs
5.1.5 Positionals
5.1.6 Particles
5.2 The Production of Lexical Categories in K’iche’
5.3 The Production of Lexical Categories in Mam
5.4 The Production of Lexical Categories in Ch’ol
5.5 Comparing Lexical Production in K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol
5.6 Mayan Pronouns
5.7 The Acquisition of Mayan Pronouns
5.7.1 The Acquisition of Pronouns in Ch’ol
5.7.2 The Acquisition of Pronouns in Mam
5.7.3 The Acquisition of Pronouns in K’iche’
5.8 Summary

Chapter 6. The Acquisition of the Mayan Intransitive Verb Complex
6.1 Acquisition of the Intransitive Verb Complex in K’iche’
6.2 Acquisition of the Intransitive Verb Complex in Mam
6.3 Acquisition of the Intransitive Verb Complex in Ch’ol
6.4 Summary

Chapter 7. The Acquisition of the Mayan Transitive Verb Complex
7.1 Acquisition of the Transitive Verb Complex in K’iche’
7.2 Acquisition of the Transitive Verb Complex in Mam
7.3 Acquisition of the Transitive Verb Complex in Ch’ol
7.4 Summary 

Chapter 8. The Acquisition of Person Marking in the Mayan Verb Complex
8.1 The Acquisition of Ergative Person Markers on Transitive Verbs
8.2 The Acquisition of Ergative Person Markers on Intransitive Verbs
8.3 The Acquisition of Absolutive Person Markers on Intransitive Verbs
8.4 Conclusion

Chapter 9. The Acquisition of Mayan Argument Structures
9.1 Argument Structure in K’iche’
9.2 Argument Structure in Mam
9.3 Argument Structure in Ch’ol
9.4 Comparative Argument Structure in K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol
9.5 Children’s Argument Structure in K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol
9.5.1 Children’s Argument Production in K’iche’
9.5.2 Children’s Argument Production in Mam
9.5.3 Children’s Argument Production in Ch’ol
9.5.4 Comparative Argument Structure in Child K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol
9.6 Conclusion

Chapter 10. Argument Realization in Mayan Languages
10.1 Argument Realization in K’iche’
10.2 Argument Realization in Mam
10.3 Argument Realization in Ch’ol
10.4 Comparing Argument Realization in K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol
10.5 K’iche’ Children’s Production of Verb Arguments
10.6 Mam Children’s Production of Verb Arguments
10.7 Ch’ol Children’s Production of Verb Arguments
10.8 Comparison of Children’s Argument Realization in K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol
10.9 Analysis or Synthesis

Chapter 11. Conclusion
11.1 Broader Implications
11.2 Theoretical Implications


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