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LINGUIST List 25.640

Fri Feb 07 2014

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition; Linguistic Theories; Syntax; French: Ayoun (2013)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 06-Dec-2013
From: Melissa Whatley <melwhatlindiana.edu>
Subject: The Second Language Acquisition of French Tense, Aspect, Mood and Modality
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-3227.html

AUTHOR: Dalila Ayoun
TITLE: The Second Language Acquisition of French Tense, Aspect, Mood and Modality
SERIES TITLE: AILA Applied Linguistics Series 10
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Melissa Whatley, Indiana University Bloomington


In the preface of “The Second Language Acquisition of French Tense, Aspect, Mood and Modality,” the author, Dalila Ayoun, indicates that previous studies of the acquisition of temporal-aspectual systems have largely focused on past-time expression and rarely include modality in their analyses. The goals of this book are three-fold: (1) to contribute to previous literature on the acquisition of tense-aspect as well as modality from a generative perspective, (2) to connect linguistic theory with second language (L2) acquisition, and (3) to make findings accessible to instructors of French.

Chapter 1, entitled “Tense, temporality and aspect,” gives a general overview of the concepts of time, tense and aspect, including a brief discussion of how researchers have previously operationalized tense and aspect as well as Vendlerian aspectual class. The remainder of the chapter describes and elaborates on the temporal-aspectual systems, including past, present, and future forms, in both French and English, and highlights the differences between the two systems. Chapter 2, “Mood and modality,” does the same for French and English mood, in the case of French, and modality, in the case of English systems, and compares and contrasts the two.

Chapter 3, “Tense, aspect, modality and the minimalist program,” gives a comprehensive historical overview of Generative grammar, beginning with Chomsky’s initial proposal that humans possess an innate language faculty, then walking the reader through Principles-and-Parameters Theory, and finally, introducing the Minimalist Program. The author spends considerable time outlining the main concepts behind grammatical features, focusing on interpretable and uninterpretable syntactic features incorporated into a discussion of functional categories. This section is then followed by an application of these Minimalist assumptions specifically to tense/aspect and mood/modality systems, in general, and later with a focus on these systems as instantiated in both English and French, in particular. The author introduces multiple theoretical approaches that have been proposed to account for the temporal, aspectual, and modal (TAM) differences that exist between these two languages. Once this background information about how TAM is viewed within a Minimalist framework is presented, the author goes on to apply these theoretical assumptions to language acquisition with a focus on the assembly of feature bundles. This chapter also summarizes the multiplicity of theoretical models of second language acquisition within the Generative framework, which are divided into two groups: impairment hypotheses and access to Universal Grammar hypotheses. The author is rather critical of the literature claiming support for impairment hypotheses, and this criticism extends to a discussion of the Critical Period Hypothesis, which forms part of the basis for impairment hypotheses. This chapter concludes with a brief discussion of hypotheses claiming access to Universal Grammar, which appear to be more favorably received by the author.

Chapter 4, “The second language acquisition of tense, mood and aspect,” gives an overview of the literature investigating the acquisition of these three verb forms in L2 French. The chapter is divided into two sections: non-generative approaches and generative approaches. Main trends emerging from the literature review from non-generative perspectives are that: (1) in past-time, perfective forms emerge before imperfective forms, (2) in the future, learners are able to use several morphological forms, and (3) subjunctive accuracy is very low for most learners. In general, these studies indicate that learners can and do acquire native-like verb systems with success. Since very few studies of the acquisition of TAM from a generative perspective for L2 French exist, the second section of the chapter is supplemented by generative studies from other L2s, including English, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as work on heritage learners of Russian and Spanish. The focus of this section is on whether or not native-like attainment is possible in the acquisition of L2 tense, aspect, and modality systems. As with non-generative studies, the main focus of these generative studies is the acquisition of tense and aspect distinctions. The majority of these studies find that native-like temporal and aspectual systems are attainable for learners, while only one claims to support an impairment hypothesis. Studies on heritage speakers indicate that TAM systems can undergo attrition and are also vulnerable to incomplete acquisition.

Chapter 5, which is divided into three sections (5.1 “Methodology and findings: Production tasks,” 5.2 “Findings: Cloze tests,” and 5.3 “Findings: Sentence completion tasks”), presents the results of a study analyzing both free and controlled production data from a group of beginning, intermediate, and advanced learners of L2 French. Participants completed free production, sentence completion, and cloze tasks designed to elicit subjunctive, past tense, future tense, and modal verbs in written form. The study was designed to answer four main research questions: 1) Does learner interlanguage display contrasts and systematicity?, 2) Does learner performance improve with proficiency level?, 3) Do learners use inflectional morphology appropriately?, and 4) Is there a task effect and, if so, does task interact with proficiency level?

The first section of Chapter 5 presents the results from four production tasks, all produced by learners within a five-week period. The first production task was designed to elicit the subjunctive, while the second attempted to elicit future verb forms and third person past verb forms. The results from these tasks show four main trends: 1) participants overwhelmingly used present indicative forms even when the tasks were designed to elicit other types of verb forms, 2) all three proficiency groups use a wide variety of morphological forms, 3) verbal morphology is in general accurate, even for the beginning proficiency group, and 4) the most frequently used forms are the same for all three proficiency groups.

The second section of Chapter 5 presents the results from the cloze tests; one was meant to elicit future time forms and the other two intended on eliciting past temporality. These tasks indicate that as proficiency increases, accuracy on all three tasks improves, with better overall performance on the future-time task than the past-time tasks. A comparison of Vendlerian lexical classes (i.e. state, activity, and telic) within each task indicates that learners are more accurate on states than activity and telic predicates, both in future- and past-time contexts.

The third and final section of Chapter 5 presents results from two sentence completion tasks; one elicited the subjunctive and the other elicited modal verbs. The results from the two sentence completion tasks show two clear trends: an increase of accuracy with proficiency level as well as an effect for modal verb, with some modals more accurate produced than others. Within the subjunctive sentence completion task, accuracy varies for all three participant groups according to the type of trigger used to elicit the subjunctive. The findings for the modal verb sentence completion task indicate that multiple verb forms may be considered correct in the minimal contexts provided by a sentence completion task, thus adding to the complexity of this set of verbs.

The final section of Chapter 5 synthesizes the results from all three task types by answering each of the four research questions individually. As far as research question one was concerned (i.e. Does learner interlanguage display contrasts and systematicity?), the results indicate that learners do display contrast and systematicity in their use of perfective and imperfective forms in the past tense, but this performance is much better on the free production task than on the two, more controlled tasks. Learners overall perform better with aspectual contrast than they do with mood contrast or with modal verbs. Research question two asked if learner performance improved with proficiency level, and the answer to this question is ‘yes.’ The more advanced learners consistently performed better than the intermediate and beginner learner groups on all tasks. The third research question asked if learners used target-like verbal inflectional morphology, a question that the author answers positively. Finally, the fourth research question was concerned with task effects. Results indicate that learners were generally more accurate on the production tasks than the cloze tasks and that beginning learners were more sensitive to task effects than the higher proficiency groups. In conclusion, the author relates the findings of the study presented here with the minimalist perspective of second language syntactic development. She notes that the learners participating in this particular study generally performed poorly on low frequency forms as well as on morphological forms situated at interfaces. This latter finding supports the main claim of the Interface Hypothesis (Sorace, 2011).

Chapter 6, “Pedagogical implications for foreign language teachers and learners,” reviews the application of second language research to language teaching pedagogy. The author points to a tension between experimental SLA and language pedagogy, indicating that recent SLA research may ease this tension as it often focuses on language pedagogy. The opinion of the author is that collaboration among researchers, teachers, and learners is the key to more successful investigations. The second section of this chapter summarizes current pedagogical issues, particularly pertaining to the acquisition of TAM. The author points towards multiple empirical studies that indicate that the rules to which learners are exposed in their textbooks, as well as textbook explanations of TAM, often do not accurately reflect the target language and fall short of giving learners the tools to differentiate among verb forms in the target language. This section offers suggestions for improvements language pedagogues may make in order to resolve this shortcoming. Section 3 of this chapter reviews selected literature on classroom-based studies of TAM in both Canadian immersion settings as well as the North American classroom. These studies point to the great variety of instructional approaches to teaching tense, aspect, and mood as well as to the difficulties of measuring their efficacy.

Section 4 of Chapter 6 discusses the importance of input, saliency, and frequency for the acquisition of TAM, indicating that the most infrequent forms are also often the more difficult to acquire. This section includes a discussion particularly addressing the complexities of the “futur antérieur,” indicative-subjunctive alternation, and modal verbs. The chapter continues with a section devoted to effective pedagogical approaches for teaching TAM that briefly discusses the various factors influencing acquisition in a classroom setting, including an innate language acquisition device, learners’ cognitive abilities, as well as a variety of affective factors. The author continues with a discussion of four basic elements of a foreign language learning context: input and interaction, feedback, output, and intake. These subsections summarize previous research, specifically as it pertains to TAM when possible. Chapter 6 continues with a discussion of current instructional approaches and hypotheses, including processing instruction, focus on form(s) and focus on meaning approaches, and also a discussion of several hypotheses and theories about language learning in the classroom setting, including the Counterbalance Hypothesis, the Teachability Hypothesis, Processability Theory, and the Competing System Hypothesis. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the use of modern technology in the foreign language classroom and also offers several practical suggestions for classroom teachers.

In Chapter 7, the concluding chapter of the book, the author gives a brief overview of each section of the book, summarizing and highlighting the most important points of each, and then offering directions for future research. Several verb forms are highlighted as fertile ground for future investigations, including present temporality, future temporality, mood and modality, and modals and modal expression. This chapter concludes the book with a discussion of methodological issues for the investigation of the L2 acquisition of TAM.


The goals of this book, clearly stated in its introduction and conclusion sections, were to contribute to the impressive body of research on the L2 acquisition of tense, aspect, and mood/modality, to bridge the gap between linguistic theory and second language acquisition, and to make empirical findings more accessible to language instructors. This evaluation will focus on how these goals were addressed and whether or not they were met.

The first goal, to add to the body of literature on the L2 acquisition of time, aspect, and mood/modality, was evidenced by the various sections of Chapter 5 in which the author presented results from a research project using multiple means of elicitation. The use of multiple elicitation tasks most certainly offered the triangulated data lacking in many studies of L2 TAM, as studies tend to focus on the results of a single task. One wonders, however, whether or not several of the claims put forth by the author were, in fact, substantiated empirically. In this section, the author referred to learners’ use of a variety of verb forms as either native- or non-native-like, but did not offer data from native speakers to support this interpretation. The same can be said of claims about the influence of frequency, put forth in both Chapters 5 and 6. While several researchers have investigated the frequency of verb forms in native speaker production, as cited in this book, current work on the frequency of verb forms in input directed to foreign language classroom learners of French is lacking. Future work in these two areas, the use of these verb forms by native speakers, and their frequency of use in the classroom, is necessary for advancement in the field devoted to studying their acquisition. Additionally, the author of this study made reference to correct and incorrect forms produced by learners, but offered no account of how these forms were identified.

The second goal of this book, to bridge the gap between linguistic theory and second language acquisition, was addressed at the end of Chapter 5 where the author integrated findings from her empirical study with minimalism. This section very clearly linked findings with theoretical principles, but could have benefited from a more in depth explanation of these connections.

Finally, the third goal put forth by the author for this book was to make empirical findings more accessible to language teachers. It was here where the author succeeded the most, as the beginning sections of the book did an excellent job of explaining difficult concepts in a manner that is accessible to readers who do not necessarily have extensive experience in linguistics. Chapter 4 was especially accessible to the novice reader. The practicality of empirical investigations to language pedagogy was clarified yet again in Chapter 6, where the author made very clear connections between language science and language pedagogy, and even offered practical applications of the previously presented empirical study.

Not only is this book an interesting read for researchers who investigate the L2 acquisition of tense and aspect, but Chapter 6, in particular (“Pedagogical implications for foreign language learners and teachers”), is particularly applicable to the classroom. The ideas explored in this chapter provide the foreign language instructor with the opportunity to reflect on the impact of linguistic input in the classroom on learners developing interlanguage systems. Finally, sections of this book may be appropriate for an overview course on French second language acquisition or a seminar on the acquisition of morphosyntax.


Sorace, A. (2011). Pinning down the concept of interface in bilingualism. “Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism,” 1, 1-33.


Melissa Whatley is a doctoral student in Hispanic Linguistics at Indiana University whose research interests include second language acquisition with a special emphasis on learning context, the L2 acquisition of past-time expression, and the L2 acquisition of sociolinguistic competence.

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