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Review of  The acquisition of Italian morphosyntax in L2 settings

Reviewer: Valeria Buttini-Bailey
Book Title: The acquisition of Italian morphosyntax in L2 settings
Book Author: Maurizio Santoro
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Italian
Issue Number: 27.912

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“The acquisition of Italian morphosyntax in L2 settings,” by Maurizio Santoro describes the process of acquisition of four morphosyntactic aspects of Italian grammar: (i) subject pronominalization; (ii) object pronominalization; (iii) the nominal system, with emphasis on Italian nominal modification; (iv) the verbal system, with emphasis on the aspect and tense distinction of Italian verbs. Data come from extensive research on the acquisition of Italian as a second language, and are analyzed within the generativist theoretical framework (Chomsky 1981, 1995, 2000, 2004).

The volume is organized into a preface and six chapters; it also includes an appendix with a list of abbreviations, and references. The chapters share a similar organizational structure, as they all start with an overview of the way a certain morphosyntactic structure has been described within the generativist theoretical background. Results from current L2 research are then presented, compared with those coming from research on other languages, and finally discussed.


The Preface explains the book’s focus and organization, and briefly describes each chapter.

The first chapter, “Theoretical background”, serves as introduction to the generativist theoretical background. Notions such as parameter setting and resetting, functional projection activation, feature values identification and feature-checking operations are explained. The chapter also describes two contrasting positions and their discrepant hypotheses regarding the L2 initial and final acquisition state, namely the Full Access Hypothesis and the Differential Difference Hypothesis.

The second chapter, “L2 acquisition of Italian subject pronouns”, focuses on the acquisition of Italian subject pronouns. This is described as a gradual and quite slow process that appears to be strongly influenced by the complexity of the Italian subject pronominal system. Even at advanced levels, in fact, and regardless to their L1 grammar, learners often have difficulty in using null arguments in pragmatically appropriate contexts. The author explains that this is consistent with Sorace’s Interface Theory (2003), according to which acquiring operations that involve several linguistic modules is more problematic than acquiring operations comprising only one component.

The third chapter, “L2 acquisition of Italian object pronouns”, describes how learners of Italian use the clitic object pronouns. The author shows how the Italian clitics system involves a series of complex operations that implicate different linguistic modules and are acquisitionally problematic to L2 learners. He also shows that ''although Italian accusative and dative clitics both present an impoverished internal structure, they are quite different from a morphological and semantic perspective'' (p. 67). This interestingly reflects in their acquisition patterns, with the dative pronouns being acquired faster and better. Contrary to what is claimed by many syntacticians, this seems to be proving that the morphological features of Italian clitics do not develop uniformly.

Chapter four, “L2 acquisition of Italian DPs”, deals with the acquisition of Italian determiner phrases, such as definite articles, possessive and demonstrative pronouns, and descriptive adjectives. It is shown that the morphological features of gender and number displayed by Italian determiners ''are acquirable, but follow a slow and gradual acquisition process'' (p. 116). Furthermore, ''they do not develop uniformly'', and ''this irregularity is noticeable at any proficiency level'' (p. 116). This struggle in the acquisitional process ''may be attributed to an interface problem, resulting from a failure in applying the acquired syntactic knowledge'' (p. 119).

The fifth chapter, “L2 acquisition of Italian verbal system”, focuses on the acquisition of the morphologically rich Italian verbal system. This also proves to be ''a quite difficult (but not impossible) task to attain since it involves mastery of many linguistic components ranging from morphology to semantics'' (p. 155). Learners seem to be able to produce verbal morphology quite early in their acquisitional process, but keep struggling with the aspectual distinction of Italian tenses and relying on their L1 even when they have reached advanced and near-native levels.

Chapter six, “Conclusion and suggestions for future research”, summarizes the results and lists a series of suggestions for future research. As the author states, the acquisition scenario that comes out in the book ''appears to support a modular view of language acquisition, according to which linguistic modules develop independently from one another'' (p. 163). Some findings, such as the precocious appearance of forms (i.e. clitics, null pronominal forms and morphological endings on Italian determiners and verbs) that need a syntactic apparatus non-existent in learners’ L1 grammars, appear to be proof of the possibility to access the universal linguistic knowledge even in SLA (p. 165). Following White (2003), Santoro also suggests a Partial Transfer/Full Access Hypothesis: according to this, ''the initial state of L2 acquisition is partially determined by learners’ first language. L1 properties may affect the development of some linguistic components, especially if these modules are particularly complex and include properties that are complex and include properties that are fundamentally different from L1. L2 leaners, however, still have full access to their universal linguistic knowledge so that features and projections that are unspecified in their L1 can still be activated with the help of UG in response to L2 input'' (p. 166).


Overall, I find Santoro’s book a pleasant and interesting reading that brings together a wealth of information on its topics of focus, and offers quite a good picture of the second language acquisition process from a generativist perspective.

However, a few inaccuracies sometimes undermine this general good impression, and substitute it with a feeling of lack of attention to details. In a few cases, it is a matter of typographical errors or forgetfulness: see for instance the use of an acute accent instead of a grave one on Italian words at page 70 and 92, or the missing reference for Chomsky 2004 cited at page 4. Elsewhere, the contents is more at stake. I will give here just three examples.
In chapter two, at page 36, while discussing the higher preference for lexical preverbal shown in matrix sentences by learners when compared to Italian natives, Santoro gives the following example:

Exper.: Chi parlerà?
Who speak-FUT?
‘Who will speak?’
Subject -?? Gianni parlerà.
John speak-FUT
‘John will speak’

The author explains that “this answer will be appropriate in English, but awkward in Italian, which would prefer the lexical subject, Gianni, in post verbal position”. While I certainly agree that a native would often prefer a post verbal subject in this context, I find the term “awkward” insufficient and hardly scientific. Since it was an oral exercise, it should have been observed that the acceptability of the sentence is actually a matter of prosody: with a prosodic focalization, the preverbal subject is correct and acceptable.

In chapter three, the author cites the results of one of his researches (Santoro 2008), where English native speakers learning Italian were tested on their use of Italian clitics. The participants were divided into three different groups according to the amount of instruction received. The author states that “the use of a pre-testing procedure to determine students’ proficiency levels became unnecessary because the completion of a language course provides an accurate indication of the L2 knowledge attained” (p. 68). This statement is, in my opinion, also unscientific. The completion of a language course can only offer a very rough idea of a student’s proficiency level. If this were not the case, language certifications would not exist.

As a last example, I will cite a wrong translation in chapter four, page 95. Here, both phrases “Le sue tre sorelle” and “Tre sue sorelle” are translated into English as “His three sisters”, while “Tre sue sorelle” should have been translated with “Three of his sisters”. It may seem trivial, but it is not, since the author is discussing the rising of determiners such as numerals and articles and the differences between Italian and English.

As the back cover states, ''because of its theoretical breath and user-friendly language'' the volume is intended as a tool for ''students that are interested [in] L2 acquisition issues'' and ''as a supplementary reading material for an introductory course in Second Language Acquisition''. This goal is certainly attained, but I personally find that in order to completely fulfill the expectations of such a public, extra care should have been observed. For instance, a few more key terms in the generativist framework could have been explained (see for example the term ‘c-command’, p. 14). I also find unfortunate that the book has almost no footnotes, because they could have helped in giving an impression of attention to details. A footnote would have been appreciated, for instance, when in Chapter Two the author mentions ''two additional functional categories labelled as Topic and Focus'' (p. 31). The two terms should have been explained, since they do not primarily belong to the generativist framework.

Despite my criticisms, the volume remains a valuable source and I would still recommend it as a complementary reading for courses in Second Language Acquisition.


Chomsky, Noam 1981. Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Chomsky, Noam 1995. The minimalist program. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam 2000. Minimalist inquiries. In Step by step: Essays on minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik, R. Martin, D. Michaels, and J. Uragiereka (eds.), 89-155 Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Santoro, Maurizio 2008.

Sorace, Antonella 2003. Near-nativeness. In Handbook of second language acquisition, M. Long and C. Doughty (eds.), 130-151. Oxford: Blackwell.

White, Lydia 2003. Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Valeria Buttini-Bailey is currently lecturer and postDoc in Italian linguistics at the University of Basel. Her research interests lie in the fields of applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, second language acquisition, text linguistic, and syntax. She also teaches Italian as a second language at the University of Zurich.