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The syntax of modifiers in second language acquisition

 Time: Friday, November 09, 2012, 03:15pm - 04:30pm

 Place: Ballantine Hall 006

David Stringer

This talk presents an overview of a research project concerned with the role of Universal Grammar in second language acquisition, specifically examining the acquisition of prepositional modifiers (e.g. "straight on through into the room"), adjectives (e.g. "a beautiful old wooden box"), and adverbs (e.g. "He probably no longer completely believes her"). Research questions include: (i) To what extent are modifier hierarchies universal? (ii) Does L1 transfer lead to distinct paths of development? (iii) Does natural language input suffice to ensure acquisition or is targeted instruction required? Universal hierarchies have been proposed for all three domains (Cinque, 1999, 2010; Laenzlinger, 2005; Larson, 1999; Scott, 2002; Shlonsky, 2004; Sproat & Shih, 1991; Stringer, 2005), but differences between languages raise learnability issues. The first part of the project, reported in Stringer, Burghardt, Seo, & Wang (2011), explored the question of whether learners of L2 English have knowledge of the syntax of prepositional modifiers even when such elements are not manifest in the L1. Results from a study with 121 ESL learners show awareness of the hierarchy irrespective of proficiency level, and constitute sound evidence for full access to Universal Grammar in L2 acquisition. The second part of the project, currently underway, investigates the acquisition of the more complex Adjective Ordering Restrictions (Stringer, Choi, Dlamini, & Martin, in prep). Experiments involved 204 ESL learners across 5 levels of proficiency. L1 Arabic, Korean, and Chinese were specifically examined for transfer effects, but contrary to expectations, the results suggest a lack of L1 influence. Knowledge of the nonabsolute-absolute distinction appears to be robust for all learners, but more fine-grained distinctions are poorly understood even at advanced proficiency levels. Thus while language universals are in evidence, they are insufficient for learners to converge on the target grammar, highlighting the need for enhanced input in language instruction.

In category: Second language acquisition


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