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Review of  Second Language Acquisition of Articles

Reviewer: Donielle L. Sharma
Book Title: Second Language Acquisition of Articles
Book Author: María del Pilar García Mayo Roger Hawkins
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.2574

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EDITOR: Maria del Pilar Garcia Mayo and Roger Hawkins
TITLE: Second Language Acquisition of Articles
SUBTITLE: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Implications
SERIES TITLE: Language Acquisition and Language Disorders 49
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

Donielle Sharma, Heartland Community College, Normal, Illinois


The book under review is a collection of papers addressing the question of how
articles are perceived and acquired in languages, recently the subject of
significant interest and research. Previous work has found that languages are
divided into two categories: those with overt article marking and those without.
Languages with overt articles can be further classified by whether they code for
definiteness, such as English, or for specificity, such as Samoan. The studies
in this collection examine the processes at work as a learner acquires articles
in a new language. Nine studies consider the question of article acquisition
from a variety of perspectives. The research covers issues such as the extent of
first language (L1) transfer to the second language (L2), performance vs.
competence, as well as semantic, pragmatic, and prosodic considerations.

The volume is divided into two parts: Part I contains five papers that test and
evaluate the role of Universal Grammar in article acquisition as proposed by the
Article Choice Parameter (ACP), which provides that in two-article language
systems, articles will encode either for definiteness or specificity, but not
both. These studies also address the question of whether interlanguages
“fluctuate” between the two parameter settings, as proposed by the Fluctuation
Hypothesis, or if speakers with L1s that encode definiteness will assign L1
values to the L2 grammar without fluctuation, as predicted by Full Transfer.
Part II consists of four papers that consider other issues involved in the
acquisition and use of articles by L2 speakers.

The first paper, ''Article choice in L2 English by Spanish speakers'' by María del
Pilar García Mayo, examines the effect of transfer in article acquisition when
the L1 and L2 both have articles that encode for definiteness. According to the
Article Choice Parameter, as Spanish encodes articles for definiteness, the
definiteness setting for Spanish speakers would already be activated as they
begin to acquire English. This study focuses on speakers of Spanish acquiring
English and explores what role, if any, fluctuation would have on a learner's
interlanguage, or if full transfer would occur, as predicted by the Article
Choice Parameter. The authors found strong support for their view that transfer
overrides fluctuation, and that where errors are made in article choice,
directionality effects produce higher accuracy with the definite article in
definite contexts than the indefinite article in indefinite contexts.

The second paper, ''L2 English article production by Arabic and French Speakers''
by Ghisseh Sarko, explores the acquisition of English articles by speakers of
French and Arabic. Although all three languages lexicalize definiteness, each
differs in the way articles are assigned. Furthermore, in contrast to English
and French, Arabic does not lexicalize indefiniteness. The author presents the
fascinating question of whether the absence of an indefinite marker means that,
with respect to indefiniteness, Arabic is semantically similar to article-less
languages or whether there is an underlying indefinite determiner that is
represented by a phonologically null exponent. This has interesting implications
for the effects of transfer and fluctuation for Arabic speakers. The author
finds evidence from the data from the French and Arabic speakers to support the
Full Transfer/Full Access Hypothesis. Additionally, some support for the missing
Surface Inflection Hypothesis is found in oral production tasks by the Arabic

The third paper, ''Questioning the validity of the Article Choice Parameter and
the Fluctuation Hypothesis'' by Marta Tryzna is a response to previous research
on speakers of Korean and Russian (article-less languages) and tests conclusions
reached in those studies. She reexamines the article system of Samoan (a
language that encodes specificity rather than definiteness), which had
previously been regarded as support for the Article Choice Parameter. This
re-examination of the article system shows that the Samoan non-specific article
is always indefinite, while the specific article may be indefinite or definite,
thereby providing evidence for a reduced form of the Article Choice Parameter.
The Fluctuation Hypothesis is tested in a study that examines the acquisition of
articles by speakers of two different article-less languages (Polish and
Mandarin Chinese). If the Fluctuation Hypothesis is correct, similar results
would be expected in experiments with other article-less languages, as learners
are expected to make predictable types of errors, but this was not the case in
this study. In fact, Chinese speakers had a much higher accuracy rate in
supplying articles than the Polish speakers in general, and particularly in
non-specific indefinite contexts. Additionally, the author demonstrated that
although Chinese and Polish do not have articles, they have other means of
encoding definiteness. The results suggest that a cross-linguistic
generalization rather than a parameter may be appropriate.

The fourth paper, ''The processing role of the Article Choice Parameter'' by Lucy
Kyoungsook Kim and Usha Lakshmanan, presents a study measuring the article
acceptance rate of Korean participants in both a self-paced online reading task
and an off-line semantic acceptability rating experiment. Some evidence was
found to support their prediction that students at the intermediate level would
not have selected the definiteness setting of the Article Choice Parameter and
would incorrectly interpret ''a'' as nonspecific, rather than indefinite. The
online task showed a strong association of the article ''the'' with specificity
rather than definiteness. The learners performed more target-like on the offline
semantic acceptability task, suggesting that given enough time to think about
the task, the learner is able to perform with higher accuracy. The authors find
evidence in the results of the two tasks to show support for the idea of a
developmental progression in terms of article acquisition in which the
specificity setting is initially selected, and then as L2 input increases, the
definiteness setting is eventually selected.

The fifth paper, ''Accounting for patterns of article omissions and substitutions
in second language production'' by Danijela Trenkic, treats of the nature of
articles and their semantic and pragmatic complexity. She argues that while
English lexicalizes the notions of definiteness and indefiniteness, such
concepts exist even in languages without such lexicalization, but they are
simply realized differently within the language. The fact that English, unlike
many other languages, no longer marks case is addressed. This, together with the
pervasive lexical ambiguity that exists in English between nouns and verbs,
necessitates the use of noun markers for semantic clarity. A variety of
substitution and omission error patterns with L2 learners of English is
discussed. The author argues that some production tasks require more processing
resources than others, and where there is competition for resources, complex
expressions will be omitted in favor of the simpler forms. This pattern is noted
in the tendency to drop articles as the saliency of the referent increases.
Other patterns of omission and substitution errors are considered, such as
prosodic transfer (e.g. Turkish), the misanalysis of articles by learners as
adjectives, and the interpretation by learners that the definite article is used
for objective identifiability, rather than definiteness. These observations
argue for a predictable pattern of development in L2 learners, which often
persists even as proficiency increases.

The sixth paper, ''Article use and generic reference'' by Tania Ionin and Silvina
Montrul, examines the parallels between languages with articles and how they
differ with respect to generic reference of plural noun phrases (NPs). The
authors discuss how languages such as Spanish require an article marker before
plural nouns, which can have a specific or generic meaning, whereas in English
the article denotes specific reference and bare nouns denote generic reference.
For languages with articles, there appear to be two competing grammars with
respect to plural article marking: one such as English that only lexicalizes
definiteness, and other languages such as Spanish that lexicalize both
definiteness and kind reference. The results with speakers of Korean suggest a
general development pattern that learners from an article-less L1 may, at early
stages of language acquisition, tend to adopt the ''Spanish'' type article system
with respect to plural NPs.

The seventh paper, ''Variability in the L2 Acquisition of Norwegian DPs'' presents
a study of the production of determiner phrases (DPs) by English L1 and Chinese
L1 learners of Norwegian. It examines the variation in the acquisition rate of
Norwegian, a language with DP agreement in gender, number and definiteness
between speakers of languages without an article system and those whose
languages only encode definiteness. Error analysis of the two groups provided
some support for the Failed Functional Features Hypothesis (FFHA) in that each
group consistently produced errors with L2 syntactic features that were not
present in the L1. The authors recognize some limitations of the study,
including a relatively small number of participants and test items, and the fact
that the Chinese learners in the study had some proficiency in English prior to
learning Norwegian.

The eighth paper, ''Articles in Turkish/English interlanguage revisited'' by
Heather Goad and Lydia White focuses on the prosodic elements in Turkish and
English that can affect the production of articles in L2 English. The authors
expand on previous work arguing that Turkish speakers generally adopt one of two
representations from the L1: an independent prosodic word (PWd) structure and an
affixal clitic structure. Prosodic word structure and its relation to stress and
vowel harmony is explored. English article production by Turkish speakers was
examined and a third representation involving vowel harmony was discovered. This
representation occurs in DPs where the article is unstressed and does not
contain an adjective. Of note, however, is the fact that in this representation
the subjects in the study employed a PWd-internal structure that is not
appropriate for either Turkish or English. Additionally, the subjects employing
this representation did not do so exclusively; evidence of competing grammars is
seen from the use of more than one prosodic representation of articles.

The last paper in this volume, ''Article choice and article omission in the L3
German of native speakers of Japanese with L2 English'' by Carol Jaensch, studies
the effect of a second language on the acquisition of articles in a third
language. In this study, L3 German production errors by native speakers of
Japanese with varying levels of English and German proficiency were examined. As
the subgroups for language proficiency consisted of a rather small number of
participants, a clear pattern of L2 influence did not emerge from the study. A
pattern that did emerge however, was that articles were omitted significantly
more frequently when an attributive adjective was present than when it was
absent. Most notably, the coordination of multiple features (definiteness,
gender and case) appeared to significantly affect article suppliance and
omission. The study showed that where non-target forms are used, there is a
tendency to choose the default or featurally less-complex forms.


The volume under review contains a very detailed and comprehensive collection of
well-written and provocative studies that investigate article acquisition from
various perspectives. Multiple languages are examined and discussed; semantic,
prosodic and syntactic elements are considered; and a wide variety of test items
and methods was employed. The wide scope of studies presented in this collection
offers meaningful insight into the processes involved in the acquisition of
articles, while at the same time becoming a catalyst for further study. Research
into this very specific topic in language acquisition has far-reaching
implications for second language acquisition research in general.

The results of the studies in this collection suggest that the issue of article
acquisition is too complex to be neatly explained by the ACP. If there were any
limitation to this collection, it would be that studies of languages encoding
specificity were limited to Samoan. It would be valuable to see further studies
with other languages in this category, especially because of the ambiguity of
the Samoan specific article as it relates to definiteness.

Donielle Sharma received an M.A. in Linguistics at Northeastern Illinois University. She currently teaches Adult ESL and Academic Oral Communication at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois. Her research interests include second language acquisition, with a particular focus on the acquisition of articles, and classroom instructional strategies.