Friday, August 31, 2007

4th Annual Language Learner Literature Award

It's not up on the web site yet, but here's the press release from the Extensive Reading Foundation.

Today, the Extensive Reading Foundation, an unaffiliated, not-for profit organization that supports and promotes extensive reading in language education, announced the winners of the 4th Annual Language Learner Literature Award for books published in 2006.

An international jury chose the winning book in four categories, taking into account the Internet votes and comments of students and teachers from a reported 21 countries around the world. I know that a lot of readers on this list were among the voters (including 107 votes from Japan alone), so thank you and your students for that.

The winning books are (drum roll...)

Young Learners
"The Boy Who Burped Too Much" by Scott Nickel. Illustrated by Steve Harpster. Graphic Sparks (Stone Arch). The jury noted the fast-moving plot and colorful illustrations in a story that will provide great fun and excitement to children, who won't be able to put it down until they finish it. Voters commented, "really fantastic and interesting." (Hong Kong) "It's funny and the pictures are wonderful." (Viet Nam)

Adolescents and Adults--Beginners
"Let Me Out" by Antoinette Moses. Cambridge English Readers, Starter Level. This is Moses' second Language Learner Literature Award after winning in 2004 for "Jojo's Story". The jury found "Let Me Out" a very well crafted science fiction story, noting its rare ability to create an emotional connection between reader and book characters. That it was a popular winner in a competitive field heartened the jury: "It's great to see a strong story-line carry the day." Voters commented, "scary and exciting." (Japan) "The story makes us think deeply about human life." (Russian Federation)

A&A Intermediate
"Rabbit-Proof Fence" by Doris Pilkington Garimara. Retold by Jennifer Bassett. Oxford Bookworms Library, Stage 3. The jury called the book sustained and powerful; a true story that reflects the experience of marginalised people everywhere. The well-paced retelling brings a second Language Learner Literature Award to Jennifer Bassett, who won for "Love among the Haystacks" in 2005. One teacher commented, "From the moment [my students] opened the book, they felt as if the story was about their own lives.... [It] helped them to become closer to their classmates who were not from the same backgrounds as they." (United States)

A&A Advanced
"The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton. Retold by Clare West. Oxford Bookworms Library, Stage 5. It successfully marshals its large cast of characters in a book that will keep its readers guessing until the end. The jury found it ideal for readers who enjoy stories that deal with emotions and relationships. Voters commented, "Because the descriptions were very good... you read and don't stop." (Peru) "It was so romantic." (Somalia)

In addition to the winners, the following books were selected as the shortlisted "finalists" in each category:

Young Learners
"The Goose Girl" Classic Tales (Oxford University Press).
"The Twelve Dancing Princesses" Classic Tales (Oxford University Press).

A&A Beginners
"Blog Love" Scholastic Readers Starter Level. (Mary Glasgow Magazines).
"The Story of Chocolate" Easyread Level One. (Black Cat).

A&A Intermediate
"Crossroads to Love" Teen Readers Level 3. (Aschehoug/Alinea).
"The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" Penguin Readers Level 3.
"Strong Medicine" Cambridge English Readers Level 3.

A&A Advanced
"Barchester Towers" Oxford Bookworms Library Stage 6.

If you want to add some excellent books to your extensive reading library, the winners and finalists are available for online purchase at the Cambridge International Book Centre.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The toilet of yours

Today, my 3-year old say to my mom, "*I'm going to the toilet of yours." It struck me that this would be grammatical (though somewhat inappropriate) if she had just changed the to this. I wonder why.

I'll have to look into it, but we're heading down to the public poor right now. In the meantime, if anyone has an answer, feel free to post it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Right-sized answer

You'll recall that a few days ago, Joshua Myerson asked about expressions such as "short sleeve(d)" & "large size(d)". I put it to Rodney Huddleston who pointed me to p. 1709 in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. There you will find a rather ingenious solution: the -ed suffix is not the same -ed suffix you find on verbs (cf. the -er suffix on nouns vs. the -er suffix on adjectives). Not only that, the suffix does not apply solely to the final word of the pair, but to the pair as a unit. In this way, it is similar to the possessive suffix on somebody else's, where else's all by itself makes no sense. Though this -ed usually applies to modifier-noun pairs, it can apply to individual nouns (e.g., bearded). The basic meaning is just with (though other specialised meanings also exist).

Given this analysis, we don't have to worry about adjectives modifying verbs any more. This leads to the interesting distinction between high-powered tools in which it wouldn't make sense to ask "by what" and powered tools in which it would.


conserving consumption

Loblaw-family supermarkets in Ontario have made a deal with Ontario Hydro to cut electricity usage in exchange for lower electricity prices. On a few hot days the stores have been rather dark, but generally you don't notice the change, except that the stores regularly play an announcement that includes the following: "We are doing our part to help conserve our community's energy consumption."

It seems to me that the just what you do not want to do.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Defenders of the pronoun

Recently, for whatever reason, I've been in situations where the question of the status of pronouns has come up. Inevitably, there are people who vehemently reject the idea that pronouns are just a special kind of noun. One correspondent writes,
"Why insist on pronouns as a 'special case of nouns' when current handbooks from Hacker to Troyka and Ready Reference unswervingly place pronouns in a different category from nouns?"
Well, because they generally:
  1. signify the same range of concepts
  2. both are subject to distinctions of case
  3. both are subject to distinctions of gender
  4. both are subject to distinctions of number
  5. share almost all the same functions (e.g., subject, object, determiner)
  6. share the same set of modifiers

Actually, 6. is a bit of a stretch. Typically pronouns don't license determinatives or adjectives but they sometimes can in a pinch (e.g., the new you). Then again, proper nouns don't usually license determinatives or adjectives either and nobody wants to set them off on their own.

These defenders of the pronoun inevitably argue that if you look up "parts of speech" in any reference, you will be told that pronoun is one. It has always been so, they say pointing to the etymology (and falling foul of the etymological fallacy). But they offer nothing beyond tradition to explain why pronouns should get a class all to themselves. Nor can they explain why, if pronouns should, auxiliary verbs, for example, shouldn't.

These people are typically unsurprised that the physics, biology, and chemistry they studied in high school is no longer up to date. But they get positively defensive when somebody suggests that grammatical description has moved on. Why is that?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Grammar by gosh and by golly

I have been assigned to teach a freshman writing course using Writing by Choice, by Eric Henderson. I've read most of it now and do appreciate the main theme about choice. I was, however, rather surprised when I came to the grammar section. I understand the need to keep things simple, but it seems to me that, perhaps in his efforts to do so, he has developed a basic framework which has rather too many inconsistencies and outright errors.

We begin with his discussion of "substantives". Though tradition is to recognise pronouns and nouns as separate "parts of speech" there appears to be no good reason for doing so. It seems more parsimonious to simply note that pronouns are a special case of nouns. Henderson follows tradition.

Regardless of what you think of the above point, the definition he provides for each remains problematic because of his reliance on semantic properties to the exclusion of morphology and syntax. To wit,
  • "Noun (nomen: 'name'): name of a person, place, or thing."
  • "Pronoun (pro + nomen: 'in place of the noun'): a word that takes the place of a noun in a sentence."

A punch, for example, is in no natural way a thing. It is an action (and I'm sure you can guess what Henderson's definition of verb is), yet punch can be either noun or verb. He goes on to say that the noun that is replaced by the pronoun is its antecedent and that indefinite pronouns have no antecedent. In other words, they don't take the place of a noun. This means they don't meet the defining criteria for pronouns.

The same thing is true of the "demonstrative pronouns" (which modern grammar deals with much more effectively under the category determiner--or determinative if you take determiner to be a function.) What noun does yonder, for instance, replace? And on p. 371, he notes that all pronouns must match the person of the antecedent, and writes, "all nouns are third-person." If we take the definition to be true, this negates the possibility of first and second person pronouns.

The simple fact that nouns (pronouns included) change for number and in forming possessives can easily be incorporated into a definition. Similarly, verbs conjugate for past tense (must excepted). Other properties can also be brought to bear to increase the level of precision (but at the expense of simplicity).

Another problem lies in Henderson's blurry distinction between parts of speech and functions. Nouns, he writes, have five functions: subject, object, object of a preposition, subjective complement, and appositive. Yet, when a noun modifies another noun, he says it is functioning as an adjective. Why is this not in the list of functions? And when did adjective become a function? In this book it is described as a part of speech, a category, that has the function of modifier. So would it not be more consistent to say that nouns functions as modifiers?

The same can be said of the case on p. 320 where phrases are described as acting as nouns. Rephrasing this as "phrases can function as subjects or objects" makes for a much more coherent grammar.

And, before leaving nouns, as far as I can tell, his system completely overlooks their function in cases like night in "I met her last night" or day in "six days old".

The next issue that caught my attention was the treatment of subject. Although the definition on p. 349 ("The subject of a sentence or clause is the noun or pronoun that performs the action of the verb, or that exists in the state or condition expressed by the subjective complement.") is better than the one on p. 307 ("The subject noun is the doer or performer of the action."), neither of them sufficiently handles stative transitive verbs such as 'have', which denote no action and have no "subjective complement". This is similar to the issues raise above regarding the definition of nouns.

But a more serious problem is that the definitions completely ignore passive sentences. In such sentences, the subject is never, as far as I can discern, the "doer or performer of the action", regardless of how forgivingly you interpret action. (In fact, insofar as I can see, the book ignores passive sentences altogether; at least, there is no index entry for passive or voice and I haven't come across any mention in the text.) And while we're on the subject of subjects, he writes, "prepositions cannot ever be the subject of a clause". This denies the existence of sentences such as "After nine is good for me."

Shifting now to verbs, we have the same kind of defining problems again, but those aside, I was shocked to see that he has conflated intransitive verbs and "linking verbs". While there are good reasons for including linking verbs as a special case of intransitives, I can see no basis at all for calling all intransitives linking verbs. Yet, that is what he's done. I've yet to see another grammar that sanctions this grouping. His choice to ignore other valencies (ditransitives or complex transitives) can be dismissed as an issue of scope, but this choice is much harder to defend.

Then he completely loses it with this bit of analysis. Considering the sentence "He acted splendidly as Hamlet in Shakespeare's play", he writes, "acted is used as a transitive verb--there is a direct object of this activity: 'as [in the role of] Hamlet.'" Direct object is not among the functions he lists for prepositions (and rightfully so, I believe). Indeed, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary gives the following example for INtransitive act: "trees acting as a windbreak".

Seemingly by way of explanation, during this discussion of intransitive/linking verbs, he makes the assertion that "in some verbs, the traditional use of to be has been dropped in speech and informal prose," giving the example of seem (e.g., "She seems [to be] well.") As far as I can tell, seem has been used freely without to be as far back as Chaucer's middle English and likely all the way back to Old Norse. For example, from The Canterbury Tales

The vapour, which that fro the erthe glood,
Made the sonne to seme rody and brood;
But natheless, it was so fair a sighte
That it made alle hir hertes for to lighte,
What for the sesoun and the morwenynge,
And for the foweles that she herde synge;

There are other problems, but I've gone on too long already. By the way, this book was first published last year. What justified it, I have no idea.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

big size(d) question

Over on the ETJ list, Joshua Myerson wrote to ask about the differences between pairs such as short sleeve(d) and large size(d).

It's an interesting question and I'm not sure exactly how to approach it. Here are some other examples:

  • long leg(ged)
  • large size(d)
  • oval shape(d)
  • broad shoulder(ed)
  • pencil neck(ed)
  • open neck(ed)
  • small frame(d)
  • small size(d)
  • flat bottom(ed)
  • low ceiling(ed)
  • different colour(ed)
  • middle age(d)
  • double strand(ed)
  • white stripe(d)
  • high power(ed)
  • light colour(ed)
  • good size(d)
  • dark hair(ed)

Note that these are often interchangeable (e.g., low-ceiling(ed) house) with no difference in meaning. But consider the difference between a dark hair gene and a dark haired gene.

While it's commonly thought that only adjectives modify nouns, nouns can also modify nouns (e.g., faculty office), Thus, we can look at the group in which the second constituent is a noun as noun phrases (NPs) that modify other NPs. This isn't problematic.

The -ed group, though is rather harder to deal with. The -ed word may be an adjective or a verb. Either way, it's being modified by an adjective which is something I wasn't aware could happen. In something like long legged, we can use pronunciation to help us decide that leg' ed (two syllables) is an adjective where legged (one syllable) is a verb. This approach is rather limited though.

Another thing to noticed is that while some would be fine without the adjective (e.g., _ power(ed) tools) others make little sense at all without the adjective (e.g. *a _ bottom(ed) boat), though the -ed forms tend to work better here (e.g., a _ sized shirt vs. *a _ size shirt).


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Elements of Typographical Style

Almost a year ago I posted about The Solid Form of Language by Robert Bringhurst. The Elements of Typographical Style is by far the most famous of his books, and I had long been interested in reading it. My wife is now taking courses in graphic design, which gave me a perfect excuse to buy and read the book. After all, what dedicated husband wouldn't want to find out more about his wife's fields of interest?

Bringhust is a renowned Canadian poet, and it shows in his prose. Though the title portends little but fussiness, pedantry, detail and drudgery, the book is actually a delight to read. Here are a few samples (not necessarily the best):
  • on typography "Like oratory, music, dance, calligraphy - like anything that lends its grace to language - typography is an art that can be deliberately misused. It is a craft by which the meanings of a text (or its absence of meaning) can be clarified, honored and shared, or knowingly disguised.
    "In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn."

  • on case "The union of uppercase and lowercase roman letters - in which the upper case has seniority but the lower case has the power - has held firm for twelve centuries. This constitutional monarchy of the alphabet is one of the most durable of European cultural institutions."

  • on notes "Relegating notes to the foot of the page or the end of the book is a mirror of Victorian social and domestic practice, in which the kitchen was kept out of sight and the servants were kept below stairs."

  • on proportions "The proportions of a page are like an interval in music. In a given context, some are consonant, others dissonant. Some are familiar; some are also inescapable, because of their presence in the structures of the of natural as well as the man-made world."

Monday, August 13, 2007


Over on Small Things Considered, there's a wonderful description of the fruiting body of the fungus pilobolus.

(Via The Loom.)

Friday, August 10, 2007

White noise

A few weeks ago, I doubted a NewScientist interview in which linguist Annie Mollard-Desfour makes the claim that to a Japanese person the brightness of a colour is more important than its hue and that the Japanese language has a large number of words for white, "from the dullest to the most brilliant". In the August 4 issue, Mollard-Desfour responds.

"The importance accorded in Japanese culture to matte-gloss and brightness distinctions is mentioned in numerous linguistics papers dealing with the cultural aspects of language and of naming - as are these features of Inuit language. True, some linguists currently propose that we need to distinguish terms for an abstract "true white", that does not refer to any particular instance of "whiteness", from those that refer to materials such as snow. Japanese certainly has terms for "white in general" and others linked to particular instances of whiteness: and

It remains the case that the lexicon of colours is difficult to understand and to translate, because the parameters used may be fundamentally different. Hence the controversies: what words translate the French blanc - and are the whites of snow or other bearers of whiteness true colour terms?"

The dictionaries to which she links return the following results when you search for blanc.

  1. *白 white (noun)
  2. *白い white (adj)
  3. *ホワイト white (Japonification of the English word white, used in brands etc.)
  4. *ブランク white (Japonification of the French word blanc, used in brands etc.)
  5. 修正液 white out correcting fluid
  6. 卵の白身 the white of an egg (as distinct from the yoke)
  7. 白目 the white of an eye (as distinct from the iris & pupil)
  8. 笹身 white meat (of a chicken)
  9. 白樺 white birch
  10. 白馬 white horse
  11. 白黒 black and white
  12. 白血球 white blood cell
  13. 白鷺 white heron
  14. 白熊 polar bear
  15. 白紙 white (i.e., blank) paper
  16. 白米 white rice
  17. *真っ白 pure white (opposite of pitch black)
  18. 白髪 gray hair
  19. *灰白 gray (ash white)

The items with an asterisk are the only ones that are actually colour terms, the others merely denoting white things. If you then search for 白 and include only the colour terms, you can add the following to the list:

  1. 青白 pale; green (said of a person who is feeling queasy or shocked; literally blue white)

So there you are. If we stretch it, we can find 7 words for white. And they don't exactly describe a continuum from the dullest to the most brilliant.

Now we can start looking for other words that signify white. Parchment, for example is 灰味黄 (ashy yellow; literally ash flavour yellow), and pearl comes out as 真珠色 (pearl colour), ivory is 象牙色 (elephant tusk colour), etc. If you're really keen, you can have a look at a list of Japanese colour names by kana order here (in Japanese).

I put the issue to Language Logger Bill Poser. He writes.

"That is very curious. My reaction is the same as yours...

I wonder if Mollard-Desfour has got hold of a warped idea about the classical color terms, the ones like imayauiro "red" found in beautiful charts in the endpapers of classical dictionaries, used, as far as I know, basically for describing the colors of kimono in Genji Monogatari? Some of those distinctions might be described in terms of brilliance, but the system still doesn't have multiple types of white."

By they way, I can't find anything on Google scholar about "the importance accorded in Japanese culture to matte-gloss and brightness distinctions" but maybe I'm not looking in the right place or perhaps it's all in French.

[I just got my print-edition of NewScientist, and despite the tag "From issue 2615 of New Scientist magazine, 04 August 2007, page 21" on the web, my letter and Mollard-Desfour's response are not printed]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Defining words (or not)

Another new journal has cropped up: ELR Journal. ELR stands for empirical language research.

In the inaugural issue, Yasunori Nishima at the University of Birmingham (Google has apparently never heard of him) has a paper entitled "A Corpus-Driven Approach to Genre Analysis: The Reinvestigation of Academic, Newspaper and Literary Texts". The paper really seems more like that of a student learning to use the tools of the trade rather than a real contribution to the field. It's mostly a rehash of existing work with different corpora, none of it done in a way that is particularly novel, and none of it really challenging any existing results or even testing out anything questionable.

Much of the paper is built around word counts and frequencies. Surprisingly though, Nishima doesn't find it useful to define for us what he means by word. When he discusses the most frequent words, does he count run (e.g., I went for a run) and run (e.g., You run well) as two instances of one word or as two distinct words? What about if we add in runner, running, ran, runs, etc.? Who knows? Nishima says he got his frequency information from Adam Kilgarriff (though there is no proper citation). Presumably, he means he got them here, but did he use the lemmatised list or the unlemmatised one? He doesn't say. At least we can guess he is either counting unique word forms or lemmas.

But then he seems to conflate two senses of word when he compares his frequency data to arguments made by Paul Nation. As I have discussed before, Nation feels that we should consider only the most frequent 2000 word families to be high-frequency. Note, however, that Nation is explicitly talking about word families, while as far as I can tell Nishima isn't.

Though Nishima is merely the most recent linguist to ignore this terminological conundrum, his is a rather flagrant and troubling oversight, largely because the paper doesn't even show an awareness of the issue. How could you be doing research with words and not give a second thought to what a word is?

Not an auspicious start for the journal.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Quaint, so quiet

I was reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary to my kid when I came across the following sentence.
“Matt, who had seen guests come and go for many years, knew there were two kinds—those who thought the hotel was a dreadful old barn of a place and those who thought it charming and quaint, so quiet and restful.”

I'm assuming here that so is not used in its sense as an intensifier. This threw me for a bit of a loop because I didn't think that so could be used to connect anything below the level of a clause. In fact, that was one of the properties that I thought distinguished coordinators from conjunctive adverbs, the topic with which this blog started over a year ago.

It strikes me as a little odd, but the more I look at it, the less objectionable it seems. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

10,000th visitor

According to, somewhere in the wee hours of August 6, English, Jack had its 10,000th visitor. Yeah!

Word drive successful

The word drive at the Simple English Wiktionary that I announced a month ago has been successful. We reached our 2000-word target a few days before the Aug. 4 deadline. Then an editor deleted a number of spurious entries which dropped us down below the 2000 mark again. By August 4th, however, we were back above it.

This seems to have created some momentum which I hope will continue. I would encourage anyone else with any interest to contribute. Also, please point it out to ESL learners you may know.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Word spurt or gradual acceleration

Bob McMurray was kind enough to respond to my post the other day. The relevant part of his mail is reproduced below.

I've seen Paul Bloom's book, as well as a number of book chapters containing similar arguments. I don't disagree with him at all. I think his points are two-fold. First, there's nothing sudden or stage-like about the vocabulary explosion--rather, it represents smooth, continuous acceleration. This was elegantly demonstrated empirically by Ganger & Brent (2004, Developmental Psychology). Second, the major acceleration may be occurring late. But the [smaller] gains made by children in their second year are particularly noticeable given that they are starting from nothing.

That said, he doesn't offer an explanation for why we see acceleration at all. Moreover, these two points are all perfectly consistent with my model. The model doesn't make strong predictions about when the acceleration occurs. In fact, if you examine its rate of acquisition after the first 50 words (analogous to an 18 m.o.) it's a lot lower than it is after 2000 words (maybe a 3 year old? I'm not sure). What it does show is that acceleration is a guaranteed result in any parallel-learning situation. I think any system in which growth is the integral of a Gaussian distribution of difficulty will actually show faster learning much later than late infancy. I'm certainly not arguing that the acceleration we see at 18 m.o. (and that is apparent in your own numbers) is the top speed of the learning-system.

I think what's important here is that the model offers an explanation for acceleration at all. It simply shows that two commonly held assumptions (parallelism and variation in difficulty), when implemented, can have surprising results. They may be all you need to account for acceleration.

Actually, Bloom does suggest a variety of possible explanations including neurological changes, accumulation of adequate phonological knowledge, increases in memory, increased understanding of kinds and individuals, emergence of theory of mind, increased use of syntax, and exposure to an increasing number of words as children begin to read. Perhaps I'll ask him for his thoughts on McMurray's paper.

Murray doesn't nod

I recently finished The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester and quite enjoyed it. The story and characters are wonderfully quirky and heroic. Winchester does go slightly hyperbolic in his praise, especially of the English language and the English people of the time. And he has the odd habit of using an interesting or unusual word or turn of phrase and then recycling it a few chapters later, but this doesn't detract much from the enjoyment.

What did annoy somewhat is the unneeded sic on p. 200. There is a quote from a letter that James Murry wrote to Dr. William Chester Minor, one of the most significant volunteer contributors to the OED and a man with serious psychological problems which propelled him to murder.
"The supreme position ... is certainly held by Dr. W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sine in no less [sic] than 12,000 quots."

Winchester includes the footnote "Even Home nods". The suggestion is that Murry should have used fewer rather than less. Obviously, Winchester didn't check the words in the OED. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage,

"the OED shows that less has been used of countables since the time of King Alfred the Great -- he used it that way in one of his own translations from Latin -- more than a thousand years ago (in about 888). So essentially less has been used of countables in English for just about as long as there has been a written English language."

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Vocab spurt explained?

Bob McMurray has an article in Science that has been picked up in the popular press, "Defusing the childhood vocabulary explosion." He's also put up his own explanation here.

For years, psychologists have argued that since the speed of vocabulary learning increases dramatically at a certain age (somewhere around 18 months), it must mean that there is a fundamental change in the learning process, a shift in strategy perhaps.

I haven't read the Science article, but on his web page and on the various media accounts, this change in learning is said to be accounted for by differences in the input rather than differences in the processing. McMurray shows that word difficulty/frequency can account for the change in learning speed. Basically, there are only a few very easy words and once you get past them, there are more and more words at that level of difficulty/frequency. This is sort of the upside of what I described here.

It's certainly an interesting result. But there's one assumption that remains unquestioned. Do children really have a learning spurt at this age? Paul Bloom thinks not. Citing various studies in his book How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, he produces the following table on p. 44 (you can search inside on
12 months to 16 months: 0.3 words per day
16 months to 23 months: 0.8 words per day
23 months to 30 months: 1.6 words per day
30 months to 6 years: 3.6 words per day
6 years to 8 years: 6.6 words per day
8 years to 10 years: 12.1 words per day

In other words, children are gradually increasing their word-learning rate at least until the age of 10. It seems likely that the early changes are quite visible to us because we can keep track of which words they know and we readily notice new words. As the stock of words grows, it becomes much harder to do this.

That's not to say that McMurray's results are wrong. Not having read the paper, I can't really say. But it is another reason to believe that there is no particular change in the learning process that happens early on.