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The L1 influences the L2 processing and acquisition of tense/aspect

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Acquiring the means to express temporal distinctions is a core task for all second language (L2) learners, but it has been found to be notoriously difficult. This is no doubt because languages vary considerably in how tense/aspect is expressed structurally and functionally, with some mandatorily marking the finite verb for the categories of tense, aspect, or both, via inflectional morphology (pull-ed, was pull-ing); while others lacking grammatical categories for tense/aspect altogether. A large body of L2 research shows that learners initially rely on lexical means like temporal adverbs and have persistent difficulties with inflectional morphology, that might only be overcome at highly advanced stages (Bardovi-Harlig, 2000, Liszka, 2009). Many of these research findings are based on elicited production and judgement task data and thus can be argued to pertain to L2 learners’ explicit or metalinguistic knowledge of tense/aspect. In contrast, we know very little about whether L2 learners can develop implicit knowledge of tense/aspect distinctions that can be applied automatically in real-time comprehension, or whether this is dependent on the properties of the first language and/or level of L2 proficiency. In my talk, I will present the results from a set of experiments (self-paced reading/eye-tracking) in which I examined the the real-time processing of English past simple, past progressive and present perfect constructions, in an attempt to tap into advanced L2 learners’ implicit knowledge of English tense/aspect distinctions. I focused on French, Greek and German learners and argue that the performance differences between the L2 groups can be explained by influences from the learners’ L1. That is, only those learners in whose L1s aspect is grammaticised, demonstrated implicit knowledge as they were sensitive to English tense/aspect distinctions during real-time sentence processing. This was the case even though encoded aspectual features in French and Greek differ from those in English.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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