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The second language acquisition of tense and aspect: a bidirectional study of L2 English and L2 Japanese

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There is plenty of evidence to show that second language (L2) learners have difficulties in supplying target-like functional morphology. Given the availability of Universal Grammar (UG) in L2 acquisition, there are two competing views concerning the reasons behind inconsistent uses of functional morphology. On the one hand, it is argued that L2 learners are able to construct the target-like syntactic representation, and that inconsistent uses of functional morphology are attributed to problems involving overt realisation of morphology. Taking this view, Lardiere (2008) maintains that learning difficulties lie in the reassembly of features; in other words, it is problematic for L2 learners to recreate new relations between features and their morphological realisations. On the other hand, it is claimed that L2 learners are not successful in constructing the target-like syntactic representation. Taking this view, the Interpretability Hypothesis is put forward, claiming that although UG principles and operations are available in L2 acquisition, the uninterpretable features of the target language which are not instantiated in the learner’s native language are inaccessible (Tsimpli and Mastropavlou 2008).

The present study aims to examine if adult second language learners can acquire target-like grammar concerning tense and aspect. Specifically, I explore the acquisition of form-meaning relations from the two points of view described above: the feature interpretability and the feature assembly.

I conducted a proficiency test, a grammaticality judgment test and two interpretation tasks. The participants were 42 Japanese speaking learners of English (L2 English learners) and 22 English speaking learners of Japanese (L2 Japanese learners) with elementary, lower-intermediate, upper-intermediate or advanced proficiency levels. The results of aspectual interpretation tasks show that the L2 Japanese learners acquire target-like aspectual interpretations earlier than the L2 English learners do. Given that English aspectual markings involve uninterpretable features whereas Japanese aspectual markings do not (Hawkins et al. 2008), it is expected that the acquisition of L2 English is difficult while that of L2 Japanese is not. Therefore, the results suggest that the unavailability of uninterpretable features obstructs the L2 acquisition. Furthermore, the misanalyses of relations between features and their morphological realisations are found among both the L2 English and the L2 Japanese learners. Thus, a difficulty for L2 learners resides in the reassembly of features. In this presentation, I will also discuss the results of grammaticality judgment tests and the temporal interpretation task in the light of the feature interpretability and the feature assembly.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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