LINGUIST List 15.646

Fri Feb 20 2004

Review: Syntax/Lang Acquisition: van Hout et al (2003)

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  1. Ahmad R. Lotfi, The Lexicon-Syntax Interface in Second Language Acquisition

Message 1: The Lexicon-Syntax Interface in Second Language Acquisition

Date: Thu, 19 Feb 2004 16:43:07 -0500 (EST)
From: Ahmad R. Lotfi <>
Subject: The Lexicon-Syntax Interface in Second Language Acquisition

van Hout, Roeland, Aafke Hulk, Folkert Kuiken, and Richard Towell,
eds. (2003) The Lexicon-Syntax Interface in Second Language
Acquisition, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Language Acquisition &
Language Disorders 30.

Announced at

Ahmad Reza Lotfi, Azad University at Khorasgan


''The Lexicon-Syntax Interface in Second Language Acquisition'' is a
selection of papers presented atthe NWCL/LOT Expert Seminar held in
Amsterdam on March 30-31, 2001. In addition to the introductory paper
by Richard Towell, and the concluding remarks by Roeland van Hout,
Aafke Hulk and Folkert Kuiken, the volume contains 8 articles on
generativist and psycholinguistic studies of the interface between the
lexicon and syntax in second language acquisition.

Richard Towell in his introductory chapter ''Introduction: Second
language acquisition research in search of an interface'' reviews the
relation between linguistics and psychology in the past focusing on
both linguistic (specifically generativist) and psychological
dimensions of second language acquisition, and the extent to which
such different perspectives of SLA research can be complementary. It
is within this framework that he outlines the 8 articles (chapters
2-9) in this volume.

Roger Hawkins and Sara Liszka's ''Locating the source of defective
past tense marking in advanced L2 English speakers'' is an analysis of
optionality in Chinese English interlanguage with regard to marking
tense in their spontaneous oral production in such sentences as ''The
police CAUGHT the man and TAKE him away.'' They claim that such errors
are due to the difficulty Chinese speakers have in assigning the
formal feature [past] to the category T(ense) as such a feature is not
selected in their L1. The participants in their study--Chinese (n=2),
Japanese (n=5), and German (n=5) advanced L2 speakers of English--were
expected to produce present/past tense forms for (irregular) nonce
verbs like *spling-->splung*. Also their spontaneous oral data were
elicited by means of story-retelling and personal experience
recounting tasks. While the non-native participants with different L1
backgrounds were not significantly different in their performance on
the inflection test, the Chinese informants were significantly less
accurate in inflecting thematic regular/irregular verbs in oral
tasks. This suggests that ''Chinese speakers cannot establish
[+/-past] on T in English precisely because this feature is absent in
their L1'' (p.40).

''Perfect projections'' by Norbert Corver assumes a minimalist
interface perspective on L2 knowledge. For Corver, ''L2-products of
inter-language grammars are typically 'target-imperfect' but
'interface-perfect''' (p. 48) in the sense that despite their
idiosyncracy once compared with native products, they consist of
features interpretable at interface levels. An analysis of L2-
expressions produced by Turkish L2-learners of Dutch is taken to
support this view.

Ineke van de Craats in ''L1 features in the L2 output'' also focuses
on the nature of L2ers' grammatical knowledge at the L2-initial state,
and the possible role L1 transfer may play in this respect. The data
in this case come from a longitudinal study of 8 adults (followed for
2.5 years) with Turkish and Moroccan Arabic L1 backgrounds learning
Dutch as a second language. The results suggest that while L2ers are
more aware of the fact that morphological and lexical properties of
words differ across languages, they originally assume L1 formal
feature constellation, which gradually changes in favour of the L2

Nigel Duffield's ''Measures of competent gradience'' is concerned with
lexical and syntactic gradient effects in a revised model of
competence in which (plausibly universal) underlying competence (UC)
''is categorical, and consists of formal (phonological and syntactic)
principles autonomous from the lexicon'' and (largely
language-specific) surface competence (SC) which ''is intimately
determined by the interaction of contextual and specific lexical
properties with the formal principles delivered by UC ...'' (p.
101). A review of empirical studies employing a variety of tasks such
as online/offline grammaticality judgements, sentence- matching
paradigm, and also a replication of the Marlsen-Wilson et
al. experiments with L2ers seems to support this dual model in that
explicit tasks tap SC, whereas implicit tasks tap UC.

Ton Dijkstra in ''Lexical storage and retrieval in bilinguals'' argues
that syntactic parsing is qualitatively and quantitatively different
between monolinguals and bilinguals. The participants in the studies
reported in this article are late bilinguals highly proficient in
English but speaking Dutch as their strongest native language. The
results suggest that the bilingual word identification system is
largely automatic to the effect that intentional and attentional
factors do not influence the process of word recognition. Despite
that, L2 lexicon is more slowly activated. Also experimental and
contextual factors may influence the retreival patterns.

''Inducing abstract linguistic representations: Human and
connectionist learning of noun classes'' by John N. Williams focuses
on the similarities and differences between human and connectionist
learning of word classes. Williams and Lovatt (2003) show that an
arbitrary noun class system with masculine and feminine genders is
learnable to both man and a connectionist network (via distributional
information). ''The problem is, however, that the networks only seem
to account for learning amongst those participants who already
possessed knowledge of other gender languages. Yet none of the
networks contained any prior knowledge'' (p.167). This is in harmony
with the observation that gender is a persistent problem in second
language acquisition.

Laura Sabourin and Marco Haverkort in their ''Neural substrates of
representation and processing of a second language'' compare the
results obtained with different methods including an off-line
grammaticality judgement task, on-line EEG measurements, and the
evidence from aphasia studies. They notice that while the differences
between aphasics and unimpaired users are *quantitative*, the
difference between native speakers and L2ers in the processing of
language is qualitative. ''[L]inguistic processing (as reflected by
the P600) can only occur in the L2 when the processing strategy from
the L1 can be used relatively directly in L2 processing'' (p. 193).

David W. Green in ''Neural basis of lexicon and grammar in L2
acquisition'' focuses on the differential representation hypothesis in
contrast with the convergence hypothesis concerning the question of
whether or not L1 and L2 lexical and grammatical knowledge are
represented differently in the brain. Based on the ERP data and
haemodynamic methods, he argues that ''as proficiency in L2 increases,
the networks mediating L2 converge with those mediating language use
in native speakers of that language'' (p. 212).

Roeland van Hout, Aafke Hulk and Folkert Kuiken conclude the volume
with the remark that with the shift of the theory from principles and
parameters into minimalist syntax the importance of the lexicon has
been crucially increased. While the use of lexical items must still
take place within a syntactic system, the driving force of language
acquisition shifts to the lexicon.


The volume is an insightful and meticulously selected and organised
collection of papers on the latest developments in the
generative/psycholinguistic studies of L2 grammar. Towell's
introduction to the volume goes much beyond an ordinary introduction
to papers in a collection: it beautifully contexualises the
contributions in generative and psychological paradigms of research in
general and the implications for SLA research in particular. Van Hout,
Hulk, and Kuiken's concluding remarks also add to the value of the
collection with some of their comments to reside for a long time in
the reader's memory. The editing and proof-reading of the papers have
been admirably careful with a minimum of typographic
mistakes--actually, the only mistake I could find in the whole volume
was one in Sabourin and Haverkort's article(p. 185) where they report
that there were 39 (?) participants in total, 23 native speakers of
Dutch and 14 second language speakers.

Minimalist syntax, however, is still conceptually too complicated and
also somehow controversial in both theoretical and empirical issues to
be straight-forwardly applied in SLA research without problems
unanticipated. For instance, Hawkins and Liszka claim that ''there is
a syntactic (i.e. semantically uninterpretable) tense feature which,
for the sake of exposition, we call [+/- past], which is available in
the universal inventory F, but which is optional''
(p. 25). Apparently, the authors have confused
interpretable/noninterpretable features and semantic/formal ones.

Corver (p. 51) hypothesises syntactic-formal features to mediate sound
and meaning at the word level. Most probably, 'morphological-formal'
is a better term for that purpose. He also considers *van* in
Dutch(e.g. in ''Ik niet trouwen van Yvette'' p. 61) to be a
*case-suffix*, which is rather surprising. Also he claims that ''[i]t
is the element carrying the [+interpretable] feature that agrees with
the element carrying the [-interpretable] feature'' (p. 62) while it
is usually just the opposite in the standard literature on the
issue. On page 64, we read: ''numbers above one are inherently marked
for the property [+plural].'' This ignores the case of duality in such
languages as Arabic. Also he argues that ''[f]rom the perspective of
the target language,L2- expressions often seem highly imperfect''
(p.65).Such a use of the term 'imperfect' is quite different from what
Chomsky and other minimalist syntacticians originally intended. Corver
should use less marked terminology like 'unnatural' or

Van de Craats distinguishes ''lexical knowledge as defined by UG from
language-specific knowledge of lexical items and their lexical
entries'' (referred to as the vocabulary by van de Craats) (p. 72). If
we accept Chomsky's definition of the lexicon as a list of exceptions
(''whatever does not follow from general principles. These principles
fall into two categories: those of UG, and those of a specific
language.'' 1995:235), then UG cannot define the lexicon anymore.

Sabourin and Haverkort suggest that ''[i]t is possible that successful
second language learners have native-like *knowledge*, just like the
aphasics (suggesting that access to Universal Grammar (UG) for a
second language is possible. However, they may actually *process* this
knowledge in a non-native-like manner''(p. 179). However, Native-like
knowledge and UG are not the same at all. Even some intelligent
creatures from the other side of the galaxy may happen to pickup some
native-like knowledge of English (if this knowledge is essentially
learnable even without a UG, which seems to be the case although it
seems to play a facilitating role for human infants--one without which
L1 acquisition would be impossible) with no access to any UG. Then
even if empirically speaking UG and native-like knowledge happen to be
the same, they are conceptually quite distinct.

Finally, Green advocates a convergence hypothesis according to which,
''as proficiency in L2 increases, the networks mediating L2 converge
with those mediating language use in native speakers of that
language'' (p. 212). Even if higher levels of L2 proficiency are
associated with more native-like neurological representations of the
language, one still cannot claim that L2 proficiency is the CAUSE(and
not an EFFECT) of such a process of neurological levelling.


Chomsky, N. 1995. The Minimalist Program. The MIT Press.


Dr. Ahmad R. Lotfi, Assistant Professor of linguistics at the English
Department of Azad University (Khorasgan, IRAN) where he teaches
linguistics to PhD candidates of TESOL. His research interests include
(minimalist) syntax, second language acquisition, and Persian
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