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The acquisition of alternation in a second language

The acquisition of alternation in a second language

Vázquez López, Patricia (2016) The acquisition of alternation in a second language. PhD thesis, University of Greenwich.

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This study examines the acquisition of alternation in a second language (L2) by focusing on the acquisition of the copular verbs in Spanish, ser and estar, by native speakers of English, who have only one copula, be, in their first language (L1). Specifically, this thesis focuses on the acquisition of copular cases with adjectival predicates, which can be classified into three groups: adjectives that combine only with ser (e.g. famoso ‘famous’), adjectives combining only with estar (e.g. content ‘happy’) and adjectives that are compatible with both but where only one copula is felicitous ccording to the context (e.g. nervioso ‘nervous’) (i.e. dual adjectives).

Two hypotheses were entertained, one dubbed as Syntactic Complexity, according to which the simpler an element is the earlier and better its acquisition is expected to be in an L2, and the Interface Hypothesis (Sorace, 1993; Sorace and Keller, 2005; Sorace, 2005; Tsimpli and Sorace, 2006; Sorace and Serratrice, 2009; Sorace, 2011, among others), according to which elements whose value depend on an interface (such as the syntax-discourse interface) are expected to be more vulnerable to acquisition. The first hypothesis predicts that ser, by virtue of its simpler syntactic structure (Arche, Fábregas and Marín, to appear), is acquired first and better. The second one predicts difficulties in the acquisition of cases where the two copulas are a possibility (i.e. dual adjectives) but only one copular verb is appropriate according to the context. To assess these two hypotheses a cross-sectional elicitation study was carried out, which elicited the copular alternation of ser and estar with djectival predicates through four, focused oral production and written comprehension tasks. The task design was especially tailored to each adjectival group. Those adjectives that have a fixed syntactic distribution were elicited separately to dual adjectives since only the latter depend on the discursive information for their copular selection. Tasks elicited copular sentences in 108 tokens, of which 36 included 6 only-ser adjectives (e.g. famoso ‘famous’) and 6 only-estar adjectives (e.g. contento ‘happy’) and 72 tokens that contained 18 dual adjectives in contrasting discursive contexts, specifically 6 dual dependent-stage adjectives of physical appearance (e.g. viejo ‘old’), 6 dual dependent-stage adjectives of disposition (e.g. amable ‘kind’) and 6 dual self-standing stage adjectives (e.g. nervioso ‘nervous’). Seventy-one English-speaking learners of Spanish and twenty-five native Peninsular Spanish speakers participated.

Results show that L2 acquisition is determined not only by the syntactic properties of the copulas themselves but also by the syntactic properties of the adjectival predicates. Learners were not more accurate with adjectives that have a fixed syntactic distribution than with those that are context-dependent. By contrast, advanced learners attained a native-like level with those adjectives that are grammatically possible in constructions where the property of stage-levelness (associated to estar) is not brought in only by the copula estar, but in other syntactic enviroments such as absolute constructions and subject predicative complements. That is, with only-estar adjectives such as content ‘happy’ and dual self-standing stage adjectives such as nervioso ‘nervous’. In turn, they
failed to achieve a target-like alternation when the copulas appear with dual dependent-stage adjectives of physical appearance (e.g. viejo ‘old’) and those of disposition (e.g. amable ‘kind’). Furthermore, results indicate that even learners at higher levels of proficiency have not fully acquired ser, leading them to misuse this copula in constructions where the copula expected was estar. This contradicts much previous research (Geeslin, 2000; Geeslin, 2003; Geeslin, 2005; Geeslin and Guijarro Fuentes, 2006; Woolsey, 2008; Cheng, Lu and Giannakouros, 2008; VanPatten, 2010; Collentine and Asención Delaney, 2010; among others) that states that ‘ser seems to take care of itself’ (VanPatten 2010, p.33) and that it is easily acquirable.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Second language acquisition; copular verbs; ser; estar; Spanish; alternation; syntax; semantics; syntax-pragmatics interface; optionality; native-likeness;
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences > School of Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS)
Last Modified: 11 Apr 2019 09:30

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