LINGUIST List 12.1711

Mon Jul 2 2001

Review: Hawkins, Second Language Syntax

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  1. Malcolm Finney, Review of Hawkins' Second Language Syntax

Message 1: Review of Hawkins' Second Language Syntax

Date: Fri, 29 Jun 2001 15:17:10 -0700
From: Malcolm Finney <>
Subject: Review of Hawkins' Second Language Syntax

Hawkins,Roger (2001) Second Language Syntax: A Generative
Perspective, Blackwell Publishers Limited, xviii + 386 pp.,
Hardback ($69.95/55 pounds) ISBN: 0-631-19183-6, Paperback
($34.95/16.99 pounds) ISBN: 0-631-19184-4

Malcolm A. Finney, California State University Long Beach


There are a number of popularly held beliefs about second language (L2)
acquisition that generally emphasize differences in the progress and
eventual outcome of acquisition. Some striking similarities have however
also been observed in the development of L2 syntax during the evolution of
an L2 learner's mental grammar from initial to final state. The text
addresses this phenomenon from the perspective of the generative approach
to L2 acquisition. This approach incorporates Chomsky's theory of
Universal Grammar (UG) along with its associated principles and parameter
theory. This theory postulates an innate mental organ or language faculty
that contains universal principles of language and guides the process of
acquisition. This principle has sparked controversies in L2 acquisition
primarily because of the apparent lack of success by adult L2 learners
(compared to children in first language acquisition) in attaining
native-like competence in L2. The text also explores influence of a first
language (L1) on the speed of acquisition of L2 syntax.

Chapter 1 "A Framework for Studying Second Language Syntax" sets the tone
for the discussion in subsequent chapters. Two principal research topics
are identified. The first is "The Developmental Problem" in L2
acquisition: An evolution of L2 mental grammar from initial to final state
during which L2 syntactic representations go through developmental or
transitional stages. That is, some syntactic representations in L2 are
acquired earlier or later than others. The second is "The Logical Problem"
of L2 acquisition: That input underdetermines output. That is, L2
learners' output (speech and writing) seems to reflect more complexity and
sophistication than is evident in their linguistic input. The text
stresses the need for a framework that would account for these phenomena.

Chapter 1 further provides various definitions of 'grammar', with special
focus on mental grammar - a speaker's subconscious and internalized
knowledge of grammatical properties of a language - and generative grammar
- grammar that generates grammatical sentences in a particular language.
Evidence is additionally provided to support the view that acquisition of
grammar is guided by innate principles of UG. The extent to which this is
applicable in L2 acquisition is yet to be determined. Within the
generative approach, some principles of UG may make available different
options (parameters) that may be set differently in different languages.
Parametric variation between L1 and L2 may be a source of difficulty or
delay in L2 learners going through the transitional stages in the
acquisition of some syntactic representations and categories.

Chapter 2 "The Second Language Acquisition of Grammatical Morphology"
discusses the incremental development of morphological properties in L2
and the possible role of L1 in this process. Hawkins first presents a
review of the literature on the development of grammatical morphology,
with special focus on English. Results of early studies indicate a
predictable order of development with little influence of age, linguistic
background, or length or conditions of exposure. Some morphemes seem to be
acquired earlier and more easily while others seem to be inherently
difficult to acquire. Indications and implications of the chapter are that
language learners (L1 and L2) build mental grammars based primarily on L2
linguistic input but ease or difficulty of acquisition of specific
morphemes may be linked to L1 background.

Chapter 2 further discusses structure-building theories of L2
morphological development within a number of syntactic frameworks
including 'minimal trees', 'valueless features', and 'full access'. The
development of the syntactic categories Verb Phrase (VP), and Inflection
Phrase (IP) is discussed at great depth.

In chapter 3 "The Second Language Acquisition of Negation and Verb
Movement", Hawkins discussed the development of Negation primarily within
the principles and parameters of UG framework. The chapter presents
empirical studies on the development of English negation by speakers of
different linguistic backgrounds. Indications are that L2 learners of
different linguistic backgrounds exhibit a similar developmental sequence.
Hawkins further proposes that L2 learners initial posit a simple lexical
projection of the English sentential negation since the initial mental
grammar is the L2 speakers does not include an IP category. The
development of the syntactic categories of NegP (Negation Phrase) and IP
is incremental and the accurate use of negation is dependent of complete
development of these categories. Hawkins also suggests, with examples,
that parametric variation between L1 and L2 may impede the development of

Chapter 4 "The Second Language Acquisition of Word Order" focuses on a
topic that has received a lot of attention the past two decades: The L2
acquisition of properties of word order in L2. This includes a detailed
analysis of the acquisition of properties that trigger the movement of
constituents in German by speakers of diverse linguistic backgrounds, with
particular emphasis on the phenomena of Verb-Second and Verb-Final in
finite matrix and embedded clauses respectively. Studies indicate that L2
learners go through a series of incremental stages in the acquisition of
these properties, regardless of the word order properties exhibited in
native languages. Hawkins proposes that an embedded clause is a CP
(Complementizer Phrase) rather than an IP. In the acquisition of German
word order, L2 learners' early mental grammars are argued to lack a CP
component. This category is added later and this accounts for the
different developmental stages. Another possible explanation advanced is
that L2 learners' initial representations may be lexical projections (VP,
NP, NegP, etc.) and that functional projections (IP, CP) develop later.
Some L1 effects are also predicted, caused by parametric variation. A more
advanced discussion focuses of incremental development of question forms
and relative clauses in English by L2 learners. The lack of a CP
projection in the L2 learners' early mental grammar is also proposed to be
responsible for the incremental development of relative clauses and
question forms.

Chapter 5 "The Second Language Acquisition of Subjects, Objects, and Other
Participants in Clauses" focuses on the acquisition of language-specific
structures and the roles they play in the sentence. These include event
structure, argument structure and thematic roles, case assignment and the
case filter, and unaccusative verb constructions. The chapter discusses
the development of the appropriate use of these roles by L2 learners and
the accompanying difficulty caused by parametric variation and the need
for parameter resetting.

In chapter 6 "The Second Language Acquisition of Nominal Phrases", the
underlying theme is the systematicity among L2 learners of diverse
linguistic backgrounds in the acquisition of nominal phrases. Hawkins
presents studies of the acquisition of articles in English by L2 learners.
They suggest an incremental acquisition with the appropriate use of "the"
emerging first followed by the appropriate use of "a" and the possessive
"-s" respectively. This was discussed within the context of structure of
the DP (Determiner Phrase) - hitherto referred to as NP (Noun Phrase).
Grammar building is also evident in the development of the DP in English
and this is responsible for the incremental developmental of articles. L1
influence is predicted when there is predicted to influence the speed of
acquisition. A more advanced discussion follows on L1 influence on the
development of the functional category Num (Number) and the persistent
difficulty that L2 learners encounter in constructing a representation for
the DP.

The acquisition of constraints is discussed in chapter 7 "Constraints on
Syntactic Representations and Second Language Acquisition". The
application of syntactic rules is generally governed by constraints
(restrictions). The acquisition of two major constraints is discussed in
this chapter: Constraints on Movement (e.g. Subjacency, Barriers,
Relativized Minimality, etc.) and constraints on the interpretation of
pronouns and anaphors (i.e. Binding constraints). Results of studies
indicate sensitivity to these constraints in production though L2 learners
are reported to be less successful in detecting constraint violations.
This may be due constraints in either to real time processing of sentences
violating these constraints or to difficulty in parameter resetting.

Chapter 8, the final chapter, "The Construction of a Theory in Second
Language Syntax: Some Issues and Controversies" recaps the major
discussion issues and proposals of the earlier chapters. It reiterates
that a comprehensive theory of second language acquisition should be able
to account for a number of phenomena including the logical problem of L2
acquisition and the second language developmental problem.

A CRITICAL EVALUATION This is one the most comprehensive texts on the
acquisition of L2 syntax that I have come across in recent years. One of
the most difficult tasks in second language acquisition research is that
there are so many variables involved that it is almost impossible for one
theory to emerge that would explain all the complexities and intricacies
involved in second language acquisition. Nevertheless, Hawkins makes a
valiant and convincing attempt to present the theory of innateness, UG and
its principles and parameters as a viable theory to account for the both
the developmental problem and the logical problem of the acquisition of L2

In chapters 2-6, Hawkins convincingly argues, with reference to studies,
that the development of syntactic properties in L2 is to a large extent
guided or determined by innate principles of UG. The text presents
arguments supported by empirical research that in the acquisition of
morphology and syntax, the initial representations of the L2 learner's
mental grammar are lexical categories (nouns, verbs, adjectives,
negation), which are later projected into phrasal categories. Functional
categories later emerged followed by a projection into their respective
phrasal categories. This developmental process may be facilitated by
saliency in L2 and by compatibility with L1 properties. By implication,
syntactic properties of language generated by lexical categories or
phrases are acquired earlier than those generated by functional categories
or phrases.

Another question that was addressed was whether, given sufficient time and
appropriate input, L2 learners would eventually develop a native-like
mental grammar. Hawkins' proposal is that L1 influence is particularly
evident where there are instantiations of different parameter setting in
L1 and L2, especially with functional categories. Some of these parameters
may be difficult if not impossible to reset. These are prime candidates
for fossilization.

Another strength of this text is that most of the chapters include
subsections labeled "Advanced Discussion", that address more challenging
issues for the seasoned reader. In addition, all the chapters end with a
comprehensive list of exercises involving an impressive variety of
languages. These are designed for readers to apply theoretical information
presented in these chapters in research situations.

An additional strength of this text could also be a potential weakness.
Its scope is enormous, covering a wide range of syntactic issues relevant
to acquisition of L2 syntax. Discussions on development of L2 syntax cover
a number of traditional and more contemporary frameworks. Some of these
issues and frameworks may be overwhelming for the beginning linguist. I
would recommend this text for a graduate or an advanced undergraduate
course on language acquisition.

This reviewer is an Assistant Professor at California State University,
Long Beach where he teaches courses on language acquisition, bilingualism,
and literacy. His primary research interest involves investigating current
theories of language, predictions in first and second language acquisition
and processing, and implications for language pedagogy. He is particularly
interested in the different factors that may be responsible for
discrepancy in terms of speed and efficiency between first and adult
second language acquisition Previous research has focused on the
linguistic theory of markedness, which attempts to predict areas
difficulty in acquisition and processing. His current research project
examines lexical and pragmatic differences between L1 and L2 and potential
L2 learning difficulties.
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