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Review of  La adquisición del sistema verbal español por aprendices alemanes y el papel del aspecto gramatical

Reviewer: Joëlle Carota
Book Title: La adquisición del sistema verbal español por aprendices alemanes y el papel del aspecto gramatical
Book Author: Tim Diaubalick
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 30.3917

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This book stems from the author’s own dissertation project that was conducted between two universities: the University of Wuppertal (Germany) and the University of the Balearic Islands (Spain). Each of the ten chapters in which the book is divided guides the reader through the several phases of an empirical study focused on the issues related to the acquisition of Spanish past forms (i.e. preterite, imperfect, and to some extent the preterite perfect). This study centers specifically on the difficulties that German learners of Spanish as a second language (L2) experience when acquiring the notion of grammatical aspect. The data collection is the result of a collaborative effort of the researcher and of several other Spanish L2 teachers and professors in many countries (mostly in Mallorca, Spain but also in Germany, North and South America, and Northern Europe). This project adds an important contribution to the relatively recent discussion on the acquisition of the Spanish verbal system by non-native speakers that has seen an upsurge in the last decade.

In the introduction, the author gives a summary of the motivation behind his research questions, that is “is it possible to acquire aspectual contrasts in an L2 provided that these features are not present in the L1?” Specifically, the main purpose of this study is to investigate the acquisition of the Spanish verbal system (in particular the aspectual features of past and future forms) by German learners in comparison to those with a different L1. He also points out that he worked within the generative conceptual framework, using in particular the implications deriving from the Minimalist Program (MP). Therefore, in this book the acquisition process is seen mostly through the lenses of the learner’s L1 and its influence. As a matter of fact, the text explains that German learners of L2 Spanish tend to follow the same pattern when picking past forms, that is they rely on the lexical markers that appear in the sentence, often disregarding verbal morphology (i.e. endings). Consequently, the book’s main focus is to explain the Spanish verbal system so that it can then be compared and contrasted with the corresponding German one.

The second chapter consists in a detailed explanation of the theoretical grounding on which the study is based. The author extensively addresses the cornerstones of generative linguistics (i.e. its initial hypothesis, the development of the Minimalist Program (MP), the very existence of Universal Grammar (UG), etc.) and explains the influence that the latter has had on how language acquisition is conceived. He also discusses the difference between the acquisition of macroparameters and that of microparameters and how analyzing the acquisition of one rather than the others in this study would have affected the results on an empirical level. In terms of the degree of access to UG, the author mentions the most prominent hypotheses of partial inaccessibility of UG and of full access to UG, namely on the one hand, the Failed Features Hypothesis (FFH) (Hawkins & Chan 1997) and the Interpretability Hypothesis (Hawkins &. Hattori, 2006; Tsimpli & Dimitrakopoulou, 2007); and on the other the Full Transfer/Full Access Hypothesis (FTFAH) (Schwartz & Sprouse 1994, 1996); the Interface Hypothesis (IH) (Sorace & Filiaci 2006); the Feature Reassembly Hypothesis (FRH) (Lardiere 2008, 2009).

The purpose of Chapters Three and Four is to explain in detail the specific difficulties related to the acquisition of verbal systems, in particular the obstacles that German learners of L2 Spanish face when studying the Spanish verbal system. In fact, according to the author, one of the purposes of chapter three, for instance, is also “to present the inherent complexity of the verbal system” (Diaubalick 2019: 46). In the third chapter specifically the author produces an overview of the theoretical basis for the division of verbs into categories. In the last section of this same chapter, there is a very clear terminology table that shows the wording regarding aspect that will be used in the remainder of the book. In this chapter, the author also stresses the fact that, given the extremely relevant communicative function verbs have, studying patterns of verb acquisition is a very peculiar task especially because learners cannot circumnavigate the concept as they would do with other elements (e.g. adverbs, personal pronouns, etc.); instead they have to find a way to acquire this element if they want to advance their proficiency in the target language. In this book, grammatical aspect is classified according to the different notions of perfective, imperfective and perfect (Comrie 1976).

As the author states at the very beginning of the chapter, the purpose of Chapter Four is to give an overview of the main differences among and within Indo-European language families in terms of aspect. What stands out in this chapter is that within the Romance languages family, usually languages have two opposite simple forms to express the past, that is the simple preterite or preterite perfect (esp. canté; it. cantai; fr. je chantai; pt. cantei) and the imperfect (esp. cantaba; it. cantavo; fr. je chantais; pt. cantei). Using one of the two elements of this dichotomy is usually enough to express the past, in other words there is no need of lexical markers. On the other hand, Germanic languages do not have the imperfect, therefore they lack that specific aspectual part. In English, this parametric difference is compensated by the existence of other explicit morphosyntactic mechanisms that mark this aspectual feature (i.e. present progressive; verbal periphrasis). For this reason, within the Germanic language family, German is in deep contrast with English, which is the only language that presents a similarity with the Romance system given the fact that it does have this aspectual difference even if only partially.

The fifth chapter, “La adquisición del pasado en la L2”, is dedicated to a very detailed literature review whose purpose is to describe previous SLA research including the theoretical framework on which these studies were based, key variables and phenomena, and the methodology that was used. The author stresses the fact that most previous studies on the acquisition of past tenses were based on a non-generative framework and that the challenge of his project is precisely to establish a sound connection between previous results and the generative approach, thus establishing a safe ground for the project.

In the sixth chapter, the author mainly talks about another area of time and aspect that was also tested in this study: the future. Future forms were included in the study because they present several connections as well as some differences with the past forms that were the object of this study. For example, in both instances they interact with the lexical aspect at the sentence level, that is with the telicity of the predicate. As a matter of fact, German and Spanish differ in two fundamental ways. On the one hand, German speakers prefer to express future concepts with the present tense and on the other, the epistemic uses of future constructions do not interact with the lexical aspect.

Chapter seven provides a clear-cut report on the methodological approach that was chosen by the researcher, particularly the second to last section (i.e. section 7.3). This section shows the structure of the questionnaire (both in paper and online format) that was used to collect data. The questionnaire was distributed in different countries to native and non-native speakers of Spanish; the first group of speakers was used as a control group to measure the results of the non-native speakers, and at the same time the answers produced by those non-native speakers of Spanish whose L1 is German were compared to those of native speakers of other Indo-European languages. The different sections (‘tareas’ or tasks) that made up the questionnaire were outlined in this chapter to demonstrate that the respondents were explicitly tested on comprehension, recognition, and production of past and future verb forms in Spanish. The acquisition of aspectual features regarding the past is different from acquisition of those related to the future in that in the first case, the learner will have to acquire both interpretable and non-interpretable features, while in the second case only non-interpretable aspectual features will have to be acquired.

In Chapters Eight and Nine, the author elucidates the results of the statistical analysis (a multivariate analysis that combines ANOVAs methods and was measured with the Wilks’ Lambda Test) done on the data that was collected, i.e. the results related to the acquisition of past aspectual values and those deriving from the acquisition of future aspectual values. The results show that the presence of contradicting items, which were integrated into the questionnaire on purpose, complicates the choice of past forms made by the respondents. In fact, respondents tend to be confused and to hesitate when choosing between two past forms. To compensate for this hesitation, they develop a strategy that usually consists in a model strictly dependent on their L1. For instance, native speakers of Romance languages tend to rely on aspectual values, thereby considering telicity as an important element and indicator. On the other hand, German L1 speakers usually look for lexical elements and rely on temporal discourse markers when facing a choice. These same results were confirmed by the analysis of the data collected on the future (Chapter Nine). These observations conform to what was previously claimed in contrastive grammar studies that state that German L1 speakers prefer lexical elements over morphological markers while speakers of Romance languages follow the opposite trend.

In the tenth and eleventh chapters, the author draws the following conclusions: (1) the initial impression that the distinction between Spanish past tenses is one of the most difficult aspects to acquire, especially for German native speakers, was confirmed; (2) the second hypothesis that concerned the existence of acquisition strategies developed by learners themselves was confirmed in the case of the past (i.e. development of a compensatory strategy) but not for the future, since its acquisition was proven to be successful; (3) the third hypothesis, like the previous two, was confirmed as well. In fact, German students of L2 Spanish, as part of an acquisition strategy based on their L1, have shown a tendency to rely on temporal discourse markers, which were considered ‘warning signals’.


The book constructs a compelling report of an empirical study centered on the acquisition of the temporal/aspectual system in the interlanguage of Spanish L2 learners. Thanks to a copious data collection (657 participants were involved in this study), the researcher analyzed the specific difficulties that German learners encountered in the acquisition process precisely because of the aspectual differences between Spanish and German (the latter, in fact, lacks grammatical aspect). The results produced by German respondents were compared and contrasted with those of Romance language speakers (specifically, Spanish native speakers were used as control group) using inferential statistical methods. As part of the main findings, the crucial effect of temporal discourse markers was reaffirmed. Moreover, this study non only corroborated results from previous studies on English learners of L2 Spanish, but produced evidence that these values go beyond those same previous results.

The primary merits of this book lie in its presentation of acquisition from several different theoretical points of view. In fact, the author brings together the generative and the non-generative traditions and by approaching the research questions under two different perspectives, describes the potential contributions and limits that each one has. By doing so, the author establishes a solid ground for the study and ensures that each theoretical framework contributes fully and effectively to the approach and methodology that were used in the study as a whole.

Another strong point of this book is the fact that it is extremely accessible even to inexperienced readers who might be new to the discipline. The high readability of this text is facilitated, among other things, by the many tables that the author has spread throughout the book. Each table works both as a summary and as an overview of the main conceptual points elaborated in each section.

The pedagogical implications that derive directly from the findings contained in this book should not be underestimated. In fact, the author states that Spanish L2 teachers should help learners to develop a learning strategy that is based on a global approach (p. 340). This means that, instead of pushing students to conceptualize temporal discourse markers as tense indicators, teachers should instead encourage students to create a compensatory acquisition strategy that is based on their L1. Another important pedagogical observation is that nowadays aspect is not taught as much as it should be and that teaching it as a group of grammar rules that students need to memorize is not effective; instead, a good strategy would be to combine didactic methods to linguistic theory.

For future research, the author himself suggests comparing speakers of non-aspectual languages and Anglophone speakers on an empirical level in terms of their acquisition process of past and future aspectual values. The results of this study should then be compared to the ones that were described in this book. The purpose of this comparison will be essentially pedagogical, that is finding out whether the acquisition strategy that German L1 learners use (i.e. using temporal discourse markers as an indication of aspectual features) is shared with other Spanish L2 learners or is exclusive to German L1 speakers.

The book should be useful to teachers of Spanish as a foreign language (Profesores de español como Lengua Extranjera – ELE), in particular to those working with German students, and to researchers working in the field of second language acquisition (SLA) focusing specifically on the acquisition of L2 Spanish but also on the acquisition of other Romance languages, for comparison purposes for instance.


Comrie, B. 1976. Aspect. An Introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Diaubalick, T. 2019. La adquisición del sistema verbal español por aprendices alemanes y el papel del aspecto gramatical: Una comparación entre los tiempos del pasado y los tiempos del futuro. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag.

Hawkins, R. & Chan, C. 1997. The partial availability of Universal Grammar in second language acquisition: the ‘failed functional features hypothesis’. Second Language Research, 13(3), 187-226.

Hawkins, R. &. Hattori, H. 2006. Interpretation of English multiple wh-questions by Japanese speakers: a missing uninterpretable feature account. Second Language Research, 22(3), 269-301.

Lardiere, D. 2008. Feature Assembly in Second Language Acquisition. In J. Muñoz Liceras, H. Zobl, & H. Goodluck (Eds.). The role of formal features in second language acquisition (pp. 106-140). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lardiere, D. 2009. Some thoughts on the contrastive analysis of features in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 25(2), 173-227.

Schwartz, B. D. & Sprouse, R. A. 1994. Word order and nominative case in nonnative language acquisition: a longitudinal study of (L1 Turkish) German interlanguage. In T. Hoekstra & B. D. Schwartz (Eds.), Language acquisition studies in generative grammar (pp. 317-368). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Schwartz, B. D. & Sprouse, R. A. 1996. L2 cognitive states and the full transfer/full access model. Second Language Research, 12, 40-72.

Sorace, A. & Filiaci, F. 2006. Anaphora resolution in near-native speakers of Italian. Second Language Research, 22(3), 339-368.

Tsimpli, I. M. & Dimitrakopoulou, M. 2007. The interpretability hypothesis: Evidence from wh-interrogative in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 23(2), 215-242.
Joëlle Carota is a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic linguistics and Spanish teaching assistant in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her research interests include second language acquisition and heritage language education, but also contact linguistics and sociolinguistic issues in the Hispanic world.