LINGUIST List 14.2198

Tue Aug 19 2003

Diss: Semantics/Lang Acquisition: Ionin: 'Article...'

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


  1. tionin, Article Semantics in Second Language Acquisition

Message 1: Article Semantics in Second Language Acquisition

Date: Tue, 19 Aug 2003 12:58:55 +0000
From: tionin <>
Subject: Article Semantics in Second Language Acquisition

Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Program: Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2003

Author: Tania Ionin 

Dissertation Title: Article Semantics in Second Language Acquisition

Linguistic Field: 	Semantics
			Language Acquisition 

Subject Language:	Russian (code: RUS )
			Korean (code: KKN )
			English (code: ENG )

Dissertation Director 1: Kenneth Wexler

Dissertation Abstract: 

This thesis examines article choice and parameter-setting in second
language (L2) acquisition. It argues, on the basis of L2-English
elicitation and production data, that L2-learners have access to
UG-based semantic distinctions governing article choice, but do not
know which distinction is appropriate for English. A Fluctuation
Hypothesis (FH) is proposed, according to which L2-learners fluctuate
between different parameter settings until the input leads them to set
the parameter to the target value.

The thesis proposes that articles cross-linguistically may encode
definiteness or specificity. The definition of specificity that is
adopted is based on Fodor and Sag's (1982) view of specificity as
speaker intent to refer. The behavior of referential this, a
specificity marker in colloquial English, is examined, and it is
proposed that the definition of specificity incorporates the concept
of 'noteworthy property'. An Article Choice Parameter is next
proposed, which governs whether articles in a given language are
distinguished on the basis of definiteness or on the basis of
specificity. While English has the Definiteness setting of this
parameter, it is suggested, on the basis of data from Mosel and
Hovdhaugen (1992), that Samoan has the Specificity setting.

It is hypothesized, in accordance with the FH, that L2-learners
fluctuate between the two settings of the Article Choice
Parameter. This hypothesis leads to the prediction that L2-English
errors of article use should come in two types: overuse of 'the' with
specific indefinites and overuse of 'a' with non-specific
definites. These predictions are examined in a series of studies with
adult speakers of Russian and Korean, two languages with no
articles. The empirical data confirm the predictions, and show that
L2-English article choice is not random but reflects access to the two
settings of the Article Choice Parameter. The same patterns of results
are found for L1-Russian and L1-Korean speakers, and it is shown that
the results are not attributable to L1-transfer.

On the basis of these findings, it is concluded that L2-learners have
direct UG-access to semantic distinctions underlying article
choice. The data also provide evidence for the existence of a
specificity distinction which cross-cuts the definiteness distinction.
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