LINGUIST List 23.608

Sun Feb 05 2012

Review: Applied Ling.; Lang. Acquisition: Roberts et al. (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 05-Feb-2012
From: Libby Gertken <>
Subject: EUROSLA Yearbook
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EDITORS: Leah Roberts, Gabriele Pallotti, Camilla BettoniTITLE: EUROSLA YearbookSUBTITLE: Volume 11 (2011)SERIES TITLE: EUROSLA Yearbook 11PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2011

Libby M. Gertken, Department of French and Italian, University of Texas-Austin

SUMMARYThis volume contains a range of perspectives on second language (L2) acquisitionin the form of 11 papers originally presented at the EUROSLA 20 conference inReggio Emilia in 2010 and the EUROSLA 2009 conference in Cork. Within the broadtheme of L2 acquisition, the contributions of this volume address languagetesting, the lexicon, morphosyntax, and the syntax-discourse interface. Thefirst five papers represent non-traditional approaches to L2 acquisition, whilethe latter six are more conventional in their topics, methodology, and (mostlygenerative) theoretical framework. This review outlines the objectives,methodology, results, and conclusions of each paper and evaluates the qualitiesof the volume as a whole.

Maria del Mar Suárez and Carmen Muñoz ("Aptitude age, and cognitive development:The MLAT-E in Spanish and Catalan") provide the first of two papers directlyrelated to language testing. The authors investigated whether language aptitude,as measured by the Modern Language Aptitude Test-Elementary (MLAT-E), is stableamong young language learners. They examined the performance of Catalan-Spanishbilinguals in grades 3 through 7 on the Spanish and Catalan versions of theMLAT-E. An increase in mean scores with increasing age for both versions of theMLAT-E suggests that language aptitude is not static in children. The smallestchange across grades was found between grades 6 and 7, which the authorsinterpret as a plateau in language aptitude and the starting point of stabilityof aptitude scores (though the scores of higher grades were not evaluated). Theauthors argue that a spike in aptitude scores between grades 3 and 4 coincideswith a Piagetian theory of cognitive development. It is precisely at grades 3-4(ages 8-9) when the cognitive operations required to successfully perform aportion of the MLAT-E subtests start to develop (the concrete operationalstage), and the plateau in aptitude scores in grade 6 (age 12) is related to themastery of these cognitive operations (the formal operational stage). Oneconclusion offered is that the MLAT-E may not measure what it claims to measureat ages 8-9. Relating aptitude scores to cognitive development is an intuitiveexplanation for the observed uneven score increase across grades, thoughalternative hypotheses deserve mention. The question of stability in languageaptitude is also left somewhat unresolved considering that a plateau in scoresaround the age of 12 cannot be confirmed without either longitudinal data orcross-sectional data that includes scores above this age.

J. Charles Alderson and Ari Huhta ("Can research into the diagnostic testing ofreading in a second or foreign language contribute to SLA research?") continuethe theme of language testing in their consideration of the mutual benefits ofcooperation between L2 acquisition research and language testing, specificallyas it pertains to the study and testing of second and foreign language reading.The paper does a good job of reinforcing basic principles of testing (e.g., theimportance of clearly defined constructs, of determining the reliability andvalidity of tasks) and provides a thorough review of the construct of reading.The authors report on three ongoing research projects. Project 1 looks atreading in a first language in order to determine what makes an item on areading test difficult, from which it is inferred what cognitive processes areinvolved in responding to that item. Four judges rated 100 items on theProgramme for International Student Assessment test according to a pool ofpotential predictors of difficulty (e.g., Register of the text) using a 3- or4-point scale. Ratings were compared to item difficulty values (not explicitlydefined). A regression analysis showed moderate prediction of difficulty--27.9%to 46.3% variation explained--when variables were grouped in larger categories(e.g., Structural Prominence). Project 2 looks at foreign language and L2reading and examines whether item difficulty on the Pearson Test of EnglishAcademic can be predicted by variables similar to those in Project 1. Project 3is a large-scale effort involving three studies--its goal is to more directlyinvestigate the cognitive variables that affect language learners' readingthrough cognitive tests (e.g., Backwards digit span memory task). The paper'sbroader aim is to encourage L2 acquisition scholars to draw on insights from L2testing--and vice versa--in order to better understand the processes involved insecond and foreign language reading and how they are acquired.

The paper by Dieter Thoma ("Guessing and risk attitude in L2 vocabulary tests")conceptually links the previous two testing-related papers with the upcoming twolexicon-oriented papers in its discussion of guessing in L2 vocabulary tests.Thoma looks into what causes students to resort to guessing, which istraditionally attributed to the L2 proficiency and risk attitude of test takers.More proficient test takers guess less often and more successfully, andrisk-averse personalities tend to make fewer guesses. 135 German-speakinglearners of English as a foreign language participated in a computer-basedyes/no vocabulary test designed to estimate receptive vocabulary size.Participants were shown both English words and pseudowords and asked to decidewhether or not they knew its meaning. Participants also completed a translationtask involving all words from the yes/no task. Guessing was operationalized asnumber of false alarms on the yes/no test ('yes' response to a pseudoword) andthe number of hits on the yes/no test ('yes' response to a word) thatparticipants could not translate. A risk attitude test was also administered.Results from stepwise regression analyses revealed that inappropriate or lack ofsemantic word knowledge was the best predictor of false alarm rates on theyes/no test. Contrary to conventional understanding, guessing was found to beunrelated to both general lexical proficiency (defined as accuracy on thetranslation task) and risk attitude. The authors propose a novel scoring methodfor discrete vocabulary tests based on these findings.

Camilla Bardel and Christina Lindqvist ("Developing a lexical profiler forspoken French L2 and Italian L2: The role of frequency, thematic vocabulary andcognates") seek to improve upon frequency-based assessments of lexical richnessin oral production. One means of measuring lexical richness in an L2 is toconduct Lexical Frequency Profiles (Laufer & Nation, 1995), in which a highproportion of low-frequency words denotes a high level of lexical proficiency.The paper argues that not all low-frequency words should be considered advanced.Results from an earlier lexical frequency profiling analysis are presentedfirst. Interviews with L2 learners and native speakers of French and Italianyielded data that were transcribed and analyzed for lexical frequency. 24Swedish-speaking L2 French participants were classified as either advanced lowor advanced high proficiency, and 30 Swedish-speaking L2 Italian participantswere sorted into intermediate or advanced proficiency groups. It is unclear whatspecific criteria were used in these classifications other than"morpho-syntactic criteria" (p.80). Nevertheless, proportions of low-frequencywords were found to correspond to proficiency at the group level, with lessadvanced L2 learners exhibiting lower proportions of low-frequency words thanmore advanced groups. Yet there was overlap between groups, and some L2 learnerseven outperformed native speakers. This paper presents a qualitative analysis ofthe intra-group variation, focusing on 8 learners who scored unexpectedly highor low for their proficiency group. All low-frequency words produced by theseparticipants were categorized as Thematic (e.g., travel and transport, sportsand spare time activities), Cognates, or Other. Including thematic vocabularywas an attempt to capture the fact that some low-frequency words are in factcommon in classroom settings. One problem with this method is that not allparticipants were classroom learners. Results of the qualitative analysis showedthat whereas each participant used thematic vocabulary to roughly the sameextent, they differed in their use of cognates, with more advanced learnersusing a greater number and variety. The authors contend that accounting forqualitative aspects of low-frequency words provides a better indicator oflexical richness than quantity alone.

Paul Meara's contribution ("Gossamer or bindweed? Association links betweencommon words") is an exploratory case study on the organization of the mentallexicon in native speakers. Citing problems with current methods of examiningword associations, he introduces an innovative methodology that allows for morecomprehensive analysis of associative links among words in different frequencybands. The author was the sole subject of the case study. 500 randomly selectedEnglish word pairs were presented to the participant using dedicated software,one pair at a time. The task was to determine whether there was a link orassociation between the words. Over a six-month period, the participantresponded to 75,000 word pairs. The mean number of links per 500 word pairs foreach of 5 frequency bands was collected. Results indicated that links within the1000 most frequent words are more likely to be identified than links from otherfrequency bands. The density of the connections seems to decline with frequencyas well. Meara concludes that associative networks may be more dense thantraditionally described but that density may vary in different parts of thelexicon. As may be expected, it appears that low frequency words have fewerassociations and thus form a less dense network. To conclude, Meara relates hisnative speaker study to L2 acquisition by suggesting that the construction ofassociative networks may play a major role in the acquisition of L2 competence.While Meara is frank about the limitations of a single-subject,researcher-as-subject pilot study, his contribution to this volume offerspromising research directions for vocabulary study in native speakers as well asL2 speakers.

The next paper by Masanori Bannai ("The nature of variable sensitivity toagreement violations in L2 English") is a departure from the preceding papers inits focus on morphosyntax and its more traditional, generative approach to L2acquisition, which is echoed in the next five papers. The author reports onSelf-Paced Reading and Grammaticality Judgment Tasks involving Japanese learnersof L2 English (n=37) and native English speakers (n=13) that were aimed atassessing sensitivity to violations of subject-verb number agreement.Participants were of low to upper intermediate proficiency, according tostandardized test scores. Stimuli in both tasks included grammatical andungrammatical sentences containing omission of 3rd person plural subject-verbagreement ("…the doctor drinks/*drink…"), overuse of 3rd person pluralsubject-verb agreement ("…those two sisters make/*makes…"), omission and overusewith an intervening adverb ("…the mother often cooks/*cook…"), and omission andoveruse with a PP complement in the subject DP ("…the student with a large bagcarries/*carry…"). Grammaticality judgment results indicated that learners andnative speakers were aware of agreement violations for all sentence types. Inthe Self-Paced Reading Task, native speakers showed violation sensitivity to allbut one sentence type--ungrammatical sentences with a PP complement--for whichthey displayed attraction errors. Reaction time data showed that learners wereinsensitive to violations involving the omission of 3rd person singular -s buthighly sensitive to overuse of the 3rd person singular except for cases in whichan adverb intervened between the subject and verb. It is argued that sensitivityto overuse of the 3rd person singular -s was adversely affected by anintervening adverb because L2 learners implement subject-verb agreement based onthe Vocabulary entry for /s/, which is sensitive to disruption of a string ofco-occurring terminal nodes (cf. Hawkins & Casillas, 2008), rather than on AGREEoperations.

Staying within generative morphosyntax but introducing the theme ofdiscourse-related phenomena that dominate the rest of the volume, the paper byPedro Guijarro-Fuentes ("Feature composition in Differential Object Marking")treats the acquisition of interpretable (semantic) features relating to the useof the personal preposition 'a' with direct objects in Spanish. Use of thisstructure is conditioned by the animacy/specificity of the NP, theanimacy/agentivity of the subject, and the semantics of the predicate.Participants in an Acceptability Judgment Task included 49 English-speakinglearners of L2 Spanish of three proficiency levels and 16 native Spanishcontrols. Advanced, high-intermediate, and low-intermediate L2 participants weregrouped according to scores on a standardized proficiency test, which alsocorresponded to years of exposure (8, 5, and 1, respectively). Stimuli includedacceptable and unacceptable sentences containing prepositional 'a' preceded byshort background stories for context. (e.g., Nunca he estado en New York. Unamigo mío estudió allí y le escribo para preguntarle dónde podría vivir sinpeligro: ¿Tu conoces a New York muy bien? ¿Dónde podría vivir?. 'I have neverbeen to New York. A friend of mine studied there and I am writing to ask whereone could live safely: Do you know New York very well? Where could I live?'). L2learners behaved differently from native speakers across proficiencies, thoughno clear developmental pattern was detected. Greater accuracy at all levels wasobserved when the sole feature conditioning the use of 'a' was +/-animate. Onthe other hand, more variability was observed when a response required access tomore than one feature. The authors take these results as evidence that theacquisition of prepositional 'a' is more difficult when multiple features areinvolved such that learners' acquisition begins with less complexform-to-function mapping and evolves, given sufficiently clear input, to includemore complex conditions for use of prepositional 'a'. Feature learning is thusnot an all-or-nothing undertaking. Findings are claimed to support a broadenedversion of Lardiere's (2008, 2009) Feature Reassembly Hypothesis.

Tiffany Judy ("L1/L2 parametric directionality matters: More on the Null SubjectParameter") tested whether the Null Subject Parameter can be reset in adultSpanish-speaking learners of L2 English. L2 participants were consideredadvanced learners since 14 out of 18 were enrolled in an American university.Unfortunately, this coarse-grained classification masks any variability inproficiency among the participants. (Five participants were found to showclearer Spanish-like interpretations of null pronominals, and it would beinteresting to see if proficiency was a factor.) L2 groups and a native Englishcontrol group completed a Grammaticality Judgment/Correction Task and a ContextMatching Interpretation Task designed to assess acceptance of grammatical overtsubjects and ungrammatical null subjects in several syntactic positions andcontexts. In the Context Matching Interpretation task, participants read a briefcontextual paragraph and responded to a follow up question that eithercorresponded to a coreferential or disjoint interpretation of a subject pronoun.(e.g., Jeremy and Cole work at a very prestigious company. There is an executiveposition open that everyone wants. Jeremy doesn't think that he will get it dueto lack of experience. / In your immediate interpretation: Who does Jeremysuppose will not get the job? / A. Jeremy B. Someone other than Jeremy). It wasfound that L2 speakers converged with native speakers in referential andgrammatical expletive contexts of the Grammaticality Judgment Task (e.g., itrains/*rains), but they did not accurately distinguish between null and overtsubjects in ungrammatical expletive contexts. In the Context MatchingInterpretation task, L2 participants performed significantly differently fromnative speakers; the former did not show a strong preference for coreferentialover disjoint interpretation as natives did. This result is taken to reveal aSpanish-influenced interpretation of overt embedded subjects, and, together withthe Grammaticality Judgment Task results, indicates that L2 participants havenot reset the Null Subject Parameter, as predicted by the superset/subset statusof the languages in question and in line with predictions of the FullTransfer/Full Access model (Schwartz & Sprouse, 1994; 1996).

Reference constraints on null subjects are also the focus of the paper by LucyXia Zhao ("The syntax and interpretation of embedded null subjects in Chinese,and their acquisition by English-speaking learners"), this time inEnglish-speaking learners of L2 Chinese. Zhao reports on a study that testedwhether L2 learners of Chinese interpret null embedded subjects in a native-likeway. Chinese null embedded subjects can refer either to a matrix subject or adiscourse entity. 39 English-speaking learners of L2 Chinese and 16 nativeChinese controls participated in a Picture Judgment Task and a WrittenInterpretation Task. L2 speakers were of high-intermediate or advancedproficiency, according to a cloze test. The Picture Judgment Task included twotypes of pictures: a coreferential one that depicted a situation in which theembedded null subject referred to the matrix subject (Lao Lu shuo 'e' xihuan kanzuqiu 'Lao Lu says that 'e' likes watching football'), and a disjoint one thatdepicted a situation in which the embedded null subject referred to a personother than the matrix subject. For the Written Interpretation Task, participantsindicated their preference in interpretation of a null or realized element in atest sentence. It was found that the high-intermediate L2 group allowed anembedded null subject to refer to the matrix subject but not to a discourseentity and that only advanced learners performed like natives in allowing bothinterpretations. The difference in L2 groups is interpreted as evidence of adelay in the acquisition of categories at the syntax-discourse interface, butthe author also notes their ultimate learnability. Several explanations for thelate acquisition of the topic deletion type of embedded null subject areproposed, though conclusions are tentative as they do not correspond to datafrom the present study. 

Roumyana Slabakova, Jason Rothman, and Paula Kempchinsky ("Gradient competenceat the Syntax-Discourse Interface") looked at acceptability judgments from 67English-speaking learners of L2 Spanish and 21 native Spanish speakers ondislocation structures. The authors tested participants' knowledge of thediscourse and semantic constraints in Clitic Right Dislocation through an onlineFelicity Judgment Task. The task included a brief context presented aurally andvisually, followed by a short dialogue with two alternatives (e.g., … Juan:¿Crees que los muebles aquí son buenos? 'Do you think that the furniture here isgood?' / A. Sofía: # Claro que sí, lo compré ahí, mi sofá. 'Of course, itI-bought there, my sofa' B. Sofía: * Claro que sí, compré ahí, mi sofá. 'Ofcourse, I-bought there, my sofa'). Participants judged sentences as felicitousor infelicitous on a scale of 1 to 4. Data show that natives found Clitic RightDislocation mildly unacceptable. Intermediate learners did not show acquisitionof either discourse or semantic constraints. Advanced and near-native L2 groups,however, demonstrated knowledge of syntax-discourse constraints in theiracceptance of clitic-doubled dislocations and rejection of non-clitic-doubledones. The main question posed is why some non-natives performed better thannatives in that their acceptability ratings corresponded to theoreticalexpectations while natives' did not. The authors point to Duffield's (2003;2005) concepts of underlying and surface competence. Natives are sensitive tothe low frequency of Clitic Right Dislocation (surface competence), whilelearners show categorical knowledge of its acceptability (underlyingcompetence). Natives, though aware of the underlying acceptability of rightdislocation, have alternative ways of capturing competence that are conditionedby discourse appropriateness, and such wider surface competence interferes withcategorical underlying competence. The authors conclude that surface competenceis probabilistic and gradient, sensitive to phenomena such as the contextualappropriateness of a structure.

The volume ends with a paper by Camilla Bettoni and Bruno di Biase ("Beyondcanonical order: The acquisition of marked word orders in Italian as a secondlanguage"), who offer a different perspective on the syntax-discourse interface.Via Processability Theory (Pienemann, 1998) and references to lexicalistapproaches such as Levelt's (1989) speech production model and LexicalFunctional Grammar, the authors assess the development from canonical tonon-canonical word orders in L2 speakers of Italian of multiple first-languagebackgrounds. 15 learners of varying proficiency in Italian completed four tasksdesigned to elicit a number of grammatical structures. The first was a PictureStory Retelling Task which encouraged use of canonical word orders withreferential subject pronouns and pro-drop. A Spot-The-Difference Task wasdesigned to elicit adjective topicalization. The third task was an "AnimalDinner" Task aimed at eliciting object topicalizations. The final task targetedquestion formation. Distributions of the different constructions produced wereused to arrange participants into developmental stages. The weakest participantat the first stage produced only declarative sentences with unmarked word order.The lower stages are characterized generally by morphological inaccuracy. Withincreased accuracy comes more target-like pro-drop structures and grammaticalquestions. At the final stage, participants produce grammatical questions,topicalizations, and show increased morphological accuracy. The authors suggestthat their Processability Theory-based developmental scale is also implicationalsince there were no learners who produced a structure at the highest stagewithout producing any at the preceding stage.

EVALUATIONThe 2011 EUROSLA Yearbook is a very good resource for beginning L2 acquisitionresearchers, as review sections are generally thorough and informative.Established researchers will appreciate the theoretical and empiricalcontributions to established topics in L2 acquisition. The addition of papers onL2 testing are especially on trend as interest in testing and assessment becomesmore and more prominent in the field of L2 acquisition (e.g., Tremblay, 2011;Marian et al., 2007; and the special issue of the "International Journal ofBilingualism" on measurement of bilingual proficiency, June 2011, Vol. 15 Issue 2).

The editors succeed in creating a coherent collection of papers under the verybroad umbrella of L2 acquisition. Although there is an array of topics,languages, and participant types, and no cross-referencing, the presentationorder is logical and comprehensible, and observant readers will appreciate theconceptual links from one article to the next.

One shortcoming is that the papers do not include particularly innovative oradvanced methodologies or statistical analysis. Meara's paper stands out for itsinnovative methodology, but the morphosyntax and syntax-discourse studies almostexclusively involve Grammaticality or Acceptability Judgment Tasks (with theexception of Bettoni & di Biase's production study). The only on-linemethodology is the Self-Paced Reading Task in Bannai's paper. Statistically,regressions and ANOVAs are suitable to the Yearbook's purposes, though the useof mixed-effects analyses in linguistic research is on the rise (e.g., Baayen etal., 2008).

Nevertheless, important themes emerge from the 2011 EUROSLA Yearbook that willguide L2 acquisition research in the next decade. Notable is the emphasis onindividual analysis as well as group analysis, which is important because groupresults may hide individual variation (Bardel & Lindqvist; Guijarro-Fuentes;Judy; Slabakova, Rothman, & Kempchinsky). Another common thread is thatstructures at the syntax-discourse interface are ultimately acquirable but mayshow protracted acquisition (Guijarro-Fuentes; Judy; Zhao). Such a conclusionhighlights the role of proficiency in L2 acquisition (also a theme in thisvolume) and reflects an important paradigm shift towards ascertaining L2capacities and away from concentrating on deficits (e.g., Birdsong, 2005).Interestingly, a discrepancy emerges in this volume between two research teams'measurements of proficiency using the same instrument. Both teams use theDiploma Español de Lengua Extranjera test for Spanish. Guijarro-Fuentes measuresproficiency with the following rankings: Advanced 39-50, High intermediate25-38, Low intermediate 0-24. By contrast, Slabakova, Rothman, and Kempchinskymeasure proficiency thus: Near-native 47-50, Advanced 40-47, Intermediate 30-39.This discrepancy reinforces an acknowledged need for better ways of assessingproficiency in L2 research.

Overall, this collection of papers highlights rigorous research being undertakenin L2 acquisition and testing, and each contribution suggests a number of pathsfor future work. The organization of papers is well planned, and the selectedpapers showcase the fine work in L2 studies presented at the EUROSLA conference.

REFERENCESBaayen, R.H., Davidson, D.J., & Bates, D.M. (2008). Mixed-effects modeling withcrossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Language,59, 390-412.

Birdsong, D. (2005). Nativelikeness and non-nativelikeness in L2A research.International Review of Applied Linguistics, 43, 319-328.

Duffield, N. (2005). Implications of competent gradience. Moderne Sprachen, 48,95-117.

Duffield, N. (2003). Measures of competent gradience. In The Interface betweenSyntax and the Lexicon in Second Language Acquisition, R. van Hout, A. Hulk, F.Kuiken, & R. Towell (eds), 98-127. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hawkins, R. & Casillas, G. (2008). Explaining frequency of verb morphology inearly L2 speech. Lingua, 118, 595-612.

Lardiere, D. (2009). Some thoughts on the contrastive analysis of features insecond language acquisition. Second Language Research, 25, 173-227.

Lardiere, D. (2008). Feature-assembly in second language acquisition. In TheRole of Formal Features in Second Language Acquisition, J. Liceras, H. Zobl, andH. Goodluck (eds), 106-140. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Laufer, B. & Nation, P. (1995). Vocabulary size and use: Lexical richness in L2written production. Applied Linguistics, 16, 307-322.

Levelt, W.J.M. (1989). Speaking: From Intention to Articulation. Cambridge,Mass: MIT Press.

Marian, V., Blumenfeld, H., & Kaushanskaya, M. (2007). The Language Experienceand Proficiency Questionnaire (LEAP-Q): Assessing language profiles inbilinguals and multilinguals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research,50, 4, 940-967.

Pienemann, M. (1998). Language Processing and Second Language Development:Processability Theory. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Schwartz, B. & Sprouse, R. (1996). L2 cognitive states and the FullTransfer/Full Access model. Second Language Research, 12, 40-72.

Schwartz, B. & Sprouse, R. (1994). Word order and nominative case in nonnativelanguage acquisition: A longitudinal study of L1 Turkish German interlanguage.In Language Acquisition Studies in Generative Grammar, T. Hoekstra and B.Schwartz (eds), 317-368. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Tremblay, A. (2011). Proficiency assessment standards in second languageacquisition research. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 33, 339-372.
ABOUT THE REVIEWERLibby M. Gertken is a Ph.D. candidate in French linguistics at theUniversity of Texas-Austin, where she is currently employed as an AssistantInstructor of French, and will complete her degree in May 2013. She studiessecond language acquisition from a psycholinguistic perspective. Herdissertation concerns the real-time processing of syntax by adult learnersof French (native English speakers) and how second language proficiency anddominance affect parsing strategies. Other projects include the creation ofan easy-to-use instrument to assess bilingual language dominance withsupport from the Center for Open Educational Resources and LanguageLearning ( and investigating "goodenough" processing among native and non-native speakers of French.

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