LINGUIST List 22.4724

Mon Nov 28 2011

Review: Language Acquisition: Plonsky & Schierloh (2011)

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        1.     Christos Pliatsikas , Selected Proceedings of the 2009 Second Language Research Forum

Message 1: Selected Proceedings of the 2009 Second Language Research Forum
Date: 28-Nov-2011
From: Christos Pliatsikas <>
Subject: Selected Proceedings of the 2009 Second Language Research Forum
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EDITORS: Plonsky, Luke and Schierloh, MarenTITLE: Selected Proceedings of the 2009 Second Language Research ForumSUBTITLE: Diverse Contributions to SLASERIES TITLE: Cascadilla Proceedings ProjectPUBLISHER: Cascadilla PressYEAR: 2011

Christos Pliatsikas, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, UK


This volume presents a selection of the papers that were presented at the 2009Second Language Research Forum (SLRF). It contains a diverse array ofmethodologies and theoretical frameworks that investigate a variety of issues insecond language (L2) research. A brief summary of each of the papers ispresented in this review, followed by a general evaluation of the volume.

The volume starts with a paper by Jennifer Baker and Margaret Quesada, whoinvestigate how L2 learners of Spanish make use of adverbials in order tointerpret and select Spanish preterit and imperfect. Adverbials appear importantto Spanish learners with an L1 such as English, which does not providemorphological marking of this aspectual distinction. The authors comparedEnglish speaking intermediate and advanced L2 learners of Spanish to nativespeakers of Spanish in an offline task. This included 10 cloze passages in whichthe participants had to select between the imperfect or preterit form of thetarget verbs. Half of the passages included adverbials, whereas in the otherhalf, the context would bias towards the selection of preterit/imperfect. Bakerand Quesada revealed that L2 learners were more influenced by adverbials intheir selection of aspect, compared to native speakers, and that this trend wasmore profound in the case of intermediate learners; when adverbials were absent,they were least likely to select the expected form. The authors attribute thisfinding to classroom L2 instruction, and propose the limitation/elimination ofadverbials in order for students to develop their sense of aspect in L2.

Kimberly Geeslin and Aarnes Gudmestad explore variation in subject expression inL2 Spanish via a sociolinguistic approach. Subject in Spanish can be expressedin various ways, such as null subject or various forms of overt subject. Theauthors investigated the forms chosen by L2 learners in sentences with ambiguousverbs or contexts (whether the referent switches), as well as whether theirperformance follows discourse-level variables, such as Referent Cohesiveness(i.e. distance and function of the previous mention of a referent) andPerseveration (i.e. continuity of the form across mentions of the referent).They interviewed native and non-native speakers of Spanish, and monitored forthe subject forms that were used (e.g. pronouns, null pronouns, NPs, etc.). Theresults revealed that increased distance from the original mention affects thechoice of the subject form of the referent, and also that the type of the chosensubject (e.g. null vs. overt) perseveres and follows up on the original type ofsubject. Importantly, these effects were common in native and non-nativespeakers of Spanish, proving that non-native speakers are equally responsive todiscourse-level variables.

Turning to the domain of syntactic processing, Masahiro Hara investigates L2processing of syntactic gaps, and how this is mediated by computational load. Hetested advanced L2 learners of Japanese, a language that permits syntacticscrambling, with Korean or English as an L1. In a self-paced reading (SPR) probetask, Hara presented sentences that were either canonically ordered (SOV) orscrambled (OSV), with the latter posing a gap at the canonical position of theobject. These sentences were followed by a probe word and reaction times (RTs)were collected. This task revealed that all groups reactivated the displaced NPdriven by the syntactic gap. Additionally, Hara used another SPR task, where hemonitored RTs in sentences that were either canonically ordered or includedshort or long scrambling. In this task, Korean learners showed evidence ofprocessing the syntactic gap in the short-scrambling condition only, whereasEnglish learners did not provide any evidence for gap processing. Based on thesefindings, Hara linked L2 performance to cognitive resource-limitations, sinceKoreans processed the gap in the condition with a moderate computational demand;on the other hand, Hara suggested that the absence of gap effects on English L2speakers points to L1 transfer, as English does not feature scrambling.

Nam-Sook Jeong focuses on meaning negotiation in L2 via a computer-mediatedsetting. He tested 24 Korean L2 learners of English, which he split according totheir proficiency (e.g. higher/lower), and created participant pairs of twotypes, namely homogenous (e.g. higher/higher or lower/lower proficiency), andheterogeneous (e.g. higher/lower). Participant pairs were instructed to conducta conversation on MSN Messenger text-chat in English, where three tasks wereperformed in each of 11 sessions: a jigsaw task, a decision-making task and anopen-ended task. The topics of the chat were pre-defined (e.g. marriage,cleaning, Christmas). The content of the electronic discussions was codedaccording to standard models of Meaning Negotiation. The results suggested thatthe type of task affected the quantity of meaning negotiation, as the jigsawtask produced greater production than the other two. Additionally, the two typesof pairs did not differ in terms of the amount of meaning negotiation theyproduced, albeit in qualitative terms. Overall, the homogenous group producedmore effective collaborative learning.

Kitaek Kim investigates processing of the copula ''be'' by Korean L2 learners ofEnglish. ''Be'' has been shown to be overgenerated by L2 learners (e.g. She is gohome), and this has been suggested to be a topic marker or a functional category(such as tense). Kim hypothesized that, in the case of Korean learners, theovergenerated ''be'' starts off as a topic marker, which develops into afunctional category as a function of proficiency level in L2. Kim studied 23beginner students of English divided into three proficiency groups. Theparticipants were given 20 topics and were asked to produce a writing sample inEnglish within 15 minutes. The collected scripts revealed that the participantsof lowest proficiency produced the overgenerated ''be'' more frequently comparedto the other groups, and also as a topic marker. This group was identified asbeing in a topic-prominent (TopP) stage influenced by L1 typology. The mostproficient group produced the overgeneralised ''be'' as a verbal inflection, andwas identified as being in a subject-prominent (SP) stage closer to L2 typology.Kim proposed a continuum that describes the development of ''be'' in learners'interlanguage that goes from TopP to SP stages.

Jihye Lee investigates the acquisition of direction-giving in Korean L2. Shetested 30 learners of Korean, of three proficiency levels, and 6 native Koreanspeakers. The participants saw several maps and were auditorily instructed togive directions to a specific point on each map. They had 1.5 minutes for eachmap and their responses were recorded. The data suggested that beginning andintermediate learners rely on bare imperatives for their directions, whereasadvanced learners preferred bi-clausal imperatives. Additionally, advancedlearners and native speakers were found to use more mitigation in theirdirections, such as external mitigation (i.e. reason) or syntactic mitigation(i.e. if-clauses). Finally, advanced learners were found to be native-like intheir use of proper speech levels according to the recipient of their directions(e.g. friend vs. someone superior), while all learners were found to overusepolite and honorific suffixes compared to native speakers.

Eleonora Luzi starts off in a constructional framework to investigate whetherSLA takes place through the acquisition, strengthening, and exposure to languageconstructions. She tested processing of Italian left-dislocation, where anelement is moved to the beginning of a phrase in order to be topicalised.Left-dislocation can involve the subject or the direct object, where agreementwith the verb is compulsory, and the indirect object or any othercircumstantial, where agreement is not required. Luzi wanted to investigatewhether the various types of left dislocation are acquired in a successivefashion. She tested 64 L2 learners of Italian divided into two proficiencygroups, B1 (low) and C1 (high). Discourse data were collected from both groups.These extracts revealed that both groups produced all types of dislocations,apart from B1, which did not produce indirect object ones. Therefore, theconstruction complexity did not seem to influence the learners' performance.However, the fact that any incorrect dislocations were absent in the C1 data,suggests, according to Luzi, a continuum in the development of thisconstruction, from the ''rough'' grammar stage, which involvesconstructualisation, to the ''fine'' grammar stage, with regular production ofconstructions.

A. Kate Miller is concerned with the constraints that underlie L2 syntacticprocessing, and whether these are due to gaps in L2 grammar or to L1/L2processing differences. Miller conducted a cross-modal priming experiment inwhich sentences in French were visually presented to intermediate and advancedAmerican L2 learners.nThe sentences included a structural gap created by thedisplacement of a constituent further up the sentence. An auditory probe thateither matched or failed to match the antecedent (creating a 2x2 design) waspresented either at the site of the gap or at an earlier control position. Thetask for the participants was to make an animacy decision on the probe. If L2processing is structure-based, then it should permit the reactivation of theantecedent at the gap position, and facilitate the response to the matchingprobe, compared to the non-matching one. This was not proven the case for any ofthe L2 groups, but the advanced learners showed faster reaction to the probe inthe gap position compared to the control position. Miller concluded thatadvanced learners were more sensitive to structure, and that they arepotentially able to construct full syntactic representations in L2.

Lisa Pierce and Tania Ionin are interested in the acquisition of articles in L2English, especially in cases where the L1 of speakers lacks articles. In thesecases, L2 learners tend to omit articles or substitute them inappropriately.Recent theories have attributed these errors to constraints imposed by the L1prosodic system. The authors tested two groups of L2 learners with L1s that donot have articles but that do differ in their prosodic system, namely, Korean(16) and Mandarin Chinese (14) speakers. They administered two tasks; first, anacceptability judgment task with sentence pairs, where the second sentenceincluded an NP with either an article present (correct) or missing (incorrect).Both groups were proven poor at detecting missing articles, with the Koreansbeing more accurate. The participants also did a transcription of spokensentences including definite and indefinite articles in various sentencepositions. Both groups demonstrated errors in the form of omissions or articlesubstitutions, with the Koreans performing better. The authors concluded thatarticle acquisition is independent of proficiency level, and that the Koreans’advantage may be attributed to the Korean rhythmic system, which facilitatesperception of articles in L2 English.

Claire Renaud investigates feature selection in the acquisition of L2 French.She tested American learners of French at three proficiency levels, as well asnative speakers of French, in two online SPR tasks. In both tasks, a contextsentence preceded the target sentence, which was segmented into six parts, andthe participants had to respond as to whether the target sentence was a goodfollow-up to the context sentence. The target sentences contained auxiliaryverbs that either agreed in person and number to the subject (grammatical), oragreed in person only (ungrammatical). In the second task, the ungrammaticalitywas demonstrated by sentences containing feminine participles in a masculinecontext (and vice versa), which were compared to grammatical sentences. RTs werecollected from the auxiliary-containing segment and the following ones. Theresults revealed that learners had good knowledge of the grammatical forms ofauxiliaries, even at low proficiency levels. On the other hand, learners oflower proficiency were more accepting of feminine forms in a masculine context,suggesting a failure in their interlanguage grammar. Advanced learners werenative-like in this task. In terms of RTs, all groups revealed similar effectsof ungrammaticality. Based on these findings, Renaud suggested that an L2 parserguides the selection of the relevant features for the analysis of forms evenbefore lexical encoding.

Natsue Sugaya investigated L2 processing of Japanese inflection on the premisesof dual system theories (rule learning vs. associative learning). Japanese is anagglutinating language with a complex inflectional system, including two typesof regular verbs, as well as irregular verbs. Sugaya tested 39 Mongolian and 2Korean L2 learners of Japanese of various proficiency levels in two offlinecloze tests where verbs were missing from short sentences. In the first task(nonce verb test), the participants had to choose among three candidates, whichwere regularly inflected nonce verbs in Japanese, in four inflectional forms. Inthe second task (real verb test) the participants were given the uninflectedform of a real verb and had to fill the sentence gap with the correctinflection. Sugaya showed that the more proficient participants were moresuccessful in applying morphological rules to real and nonce verbs. Also, it wasfound that the nonce verbs that resembled real ones in form were responded tomore accurately, giving evidence for associative learning. Sugaya concluded thatlearning of complex inflectional systems in L2 requires both rule learning andexemplar-based learning.

Malena Weitze, Jeremiah McGhee and C. Ray Graham examine the issue of L1 effectsin L2 acquisition, especially the acquisition of grammatical morphemes in L2.They tested 760 learners of English of several L1 backgrounds in an elicitedimitation task. The participants were given sets of short auditory sentenceswhich they had to repeat within a given time. The sentences included morphemesthat have been shown to be acquired either early (e.g. -ing, -s (plural) andarticles) or late (e.g. regular past -ed and 3rd person singular -s), and theparticipants were scored according to how accurately they produced the forms.The results showed that L2 learners with an L1 that resembles English inmorphological structure (e.g. Spanish, Portuguese) were more accurate withearly-acquired forms than late ones, whereas Japanese and Korean learners ofEnglish showed the opposite pattern. The authors suggested that L1 affects theorder of acquisition of grammatical morphemes; however, their results wereinconclusive because Chinese learners performed differently than the speakers ofmorphologically similar languages (e.g Japanese and Korean).

German Zarate-Sandez looks at processing of syllabic structure by L2 learners ofEnglish. More specifically, he tested phonological processing of diphthongs(e.g. /i/ in the word ''avión'') and hiatuses (e.g. ae in the word ''traer'') in L2Spanish in order to investigate whether native and non-native speakers ofSpanish follow the same strategies during syllabification of words with vowelcomplexes. He tested 167 English learners of Spanish in three proficiency levels(i.e. elementary, intermediate, advanced), and 22 native speakers of Spanish asthe control group. The task consisted of a questionnaire with 36 wordscontaining vowel sequences, and 17 words were L1-L2 cognates (e.g. ''historia'').The participants had to cut each word into syllables, and they were scoredaccording to the number of the diphthongs they recognised. The results suggestedthat L2 learners tended to treat hiatuses in Spanish as diphthongs, contrary tonative speakers, and this effect was largely driven by the influence of thecognate stimuli. The proficiency level did not appear to interact with theirperformance.


This is a highly informative volume, containing papers on a range ofexperimental fields from both established and emerging researchers; there arestudies on sociolinguistic aspects of L2 (Geeslin and Gudmestad, Jeong, Lee),morphological (Sugaya, Weitze et al.), morphosyntactic (Baker and Quesada, Kim,Renaud) and phonological (Zarate-Sandez) processing, as well as syntacticaspects of L2 processing (Hara, Miller, Luzi, Pierce and Ionin). The presentedexperiments were conducted with several online (e.g. self-paced reading) andoffline (e.g. cloze tests) tasks.

Of particular interest is the paper by Hara, who dismissed earlier suggestionsthat L2 learners do not process abstract syntactic structures, and attributedthe absence of native-like effects to increased computational demands in L2syntactic processing. This suggestion was in accordance with the findings byMiller, who showed evidence that L2 learners, at least advanced ones, resort tonative-like structure-based syntactic processing. Additionally, and quiteinterestingly, several studies in this volume appear to lower the importance ofproficiency level in areas such as the L2 processing of phonology in Spanish(Zarate-Sandez), auxiliary verbs in French (Renaud), and article acquisition inEnglish (Pierce and Ionin), whereas in more syntax-related experimentsproficiency does appear important (Baker and Quesada, Luzi, Miller). Thisdistinction suggests that advanced proficiency level is not necessary forefficient L2 processing, but may be beneficial for specific language domains,especially syntax.

As such, the volume provides a good summary of the directions of ongoingresearch in second language acquisition (SLA). The volume would benefit fromgrouping papers into sections according to the subfield to which they arerelevant instead of the current, alphabetical order. Several papers are highlyrelevant to each other, so it would be good if they were presented together.This would make the volume more coherent and assist the readers in comparing andcontrasting relevant papers.

This volume is highly recommended to researchers in the fields of SLA andpsycholinguistics, as well as to students or any other parties that require anup-to-date knowledge of issues in current SLA research. The diversity of thisvolume guarantees that researchers from a variety of different fields inpsycholinguistics will find some interesting experimental findings andsuggestions, as well as use them as a starting point for future research.


Christos Pliatsikas received his PhD from the Department of Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading. His research interests are in the area of psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics. He has used behavioural and neuroimaging (fMRI) methods for the study of online morphological and syntactic processing, especially by late second language learners. He is currently employed as a Research Fellow by the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham

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