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Evolutionary Syntax

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Academic Paper

Title: When Russians learn English: How the semantics of causation may change
Author: Phillip Wolff
Institution: Emory University
Author: Tatyana Ventura
Institution: University of Memphis
Linguistic Field: Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition; Semantics
Subject Language: Russian
Abstract: We examined how the semantics of causal expressions in Russian and English might differ and how these differences might lead to changes in the way second language learners understand causal expressions in their first language. According to the dynamics model of causation (Wolff, 2007), expressions of causation based on CAUSE verbs (make, force) differ from expressions based on ENABLE verbs (let, help, allow) primarily in terms of the causee's inherent tendency toward an endstate, that is, the causee's physical or intentional inclination for a particular state of affairs. In Russian, the tendency appears to be based on internally derived forces, whereas in English, the tendency may be based on either internally or externally derived forces. In two experiments, English and Russian monolinguals and bilinguals described animations in which the causee's tendency was systematically varied. When the causee's tendency was ambiguous, English and Russian monolinguals’ descriptions differed, suggesting that the causal expressions differ in meaning across languages. Of primary interest, Russian–English and English–Russian bilinguals’ causal descriptions differed from those of monolingual speakers of their first language, and in the direction of the second language, even though they performed the task in the first language. This L2 → L1 transfer is explained in terms of the memory phenomenon of retrieval-induced reconsolidation.


This article appears IN Bilingualism: Language and Cognition Vol. 12, Issue 2, which you can READ on Cambridge's site or on LINGUIST .

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