Generative SLA Workshop

On January 29th, 2010 UIC will be hosting a Generative Second Language Workshop featuring:

  • Tania Ionin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    “Production and interpretation of articles in second language acquisition”
  • Silvina Montrul, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    “Morphological Errors in L2 Learners and Heritage Language Learners: Missing Surface Inflection or simply experience?”
  • Roumyana Slabakova, University of Illinois
    “The Bottleneck Hypothesis: What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language”

The workshop will take place from 3 PM to 6 PM in Grant Hall 207 (703 South Morgan Street, 60607).

Tania Ionin (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Production and interpretation of articles in second language acquisition

Among the learning tasks faced by second language (L2) learners is to map linguistic form to its corresponding meaning. Recent investigations into L2-acquisition at the syntax/semantics interface have shown that learners face particular difficulties when the form-meaning mappings in the learners’ first language (L1) are different from those in the L2; at the same time, these difficulties are not insurmountable, and L2-learners have been found to exhibit sensitivity to subtle syntax-semantics mappings that are not present in their L1 and not subject to explicit instruction (see Slabakova 2008 for an overview).  The domain of article semantics is one area in which L2-learners have to acquire subtle form-meaning mappings. For example, L2-English learners coming from an article-less L1 (such as Russian or Korean) have to acquire the contrasts between definite, indefinite, and bare (article-less) noun phrases; and L2-English learners coming from an L1 which has articles (such as Spanish) have to reconfigure some aspects of article semantics, for example in the area of generic reference. This talk will report on several experiments probing how L2-English learners from different L1s use and interpret English articles a variety of semantic environments; these experiments aim to tease apart L1-influence from learners’ sensitivity to semantic universals.  The findings show that (i) L1-transfer plays a role in how L2-English learners use and interpret English articles; and (ii) L2-learners are sensitive to subtle contrasts in meaning which are not morphologically marked in their L1, and not subject to (much) classroom instruction, such as the contrasts between specific and non-specific indefinites, and between definite and indefinite generics. It is argued that L2-learners, regardless of their L1, have access to semantic universals through Universal Grammar. Errors with article choice are shown to be due to L1-transfer and to difficulties acquiring language-specific form-meaning mappings, but not to lack of semantic knowledge. Implications of these findings for both semantic theories and theories of L2-acquisition are discussed.

Silvina Montrul (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Morphological Errors in L2 Learners and Heritage Language Learners:
Missing Surface Inflection or simply experience?

Morphological variability and the source of these errors have been hotly debated in generative approaches to L2 acquisition. A recurrent finding is that postpuberty L2 learners often omit or use the wrong affix for nominal and verbal inflections in oral production, but less so in written tasks. According to the Representational Deficit View (Hawkisn & Chan 1997, Tsimpli and 2007), morphological errors arise from deficits at the level of linguistic representation due to maturational effects. But for the Missing Surface Inflection Hypothesis (Prévost & White 1999, 2000), L2 learners have intact functional projections and their parameterized features, but errors stem from problems during production only (a mapping or processing problem). Interestingly, inflectional morphology is also a problem area for heritage language speakers, who were exposed to the language earlier in life than the L2 learners. In this talk I compare knowledge of Spanish nominal and verbal morphology in L2 learners and heritage speakers and examine whether these theoretical accounts can be extended to explain the patterns of morphological variability observed in many heritage language learners. The results suggest that while the Missing Surface Inflection Hypothesis correctly characterizes the performance patterns observed in L2 acquisition, it does not correctly describe the performance of the heritage language learners tested in this study. I argue that morphological errors in the two populations seem to be related to the type of experience.

Roumyana Slabakova (University of Iowa)
The Bottleneck Hypothesis: What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language

In recent years, the modular view of the L2 acquisition experience and the interlanguage grammar has been gaining in importance. It is no longer controversial to argue that the different components of the L2 grammar may have different sensitive periods of acquisition. This argument is supported by evolving views of the language architecture (Minimalism, Jackendoff 2002). The current emphasis is on the relative difficulty of linguistic features and constructions, as well as on how the language architecture, input properties, and speakers’ processing resources affect developmental sequences. Based on comparison of findings on the L2 acquisition of inflectional morphology, syntax, the syntax-semantics and the syntax-context/discourse interface, the Bottleneck Hypothesis argues that the functional (inflectional) morphemes and their features are the bottleneck of L2 acquisition; acquisition of syntax and semantics (and maybe even the syntax-discourse interface) flows smoothly (Slabakova, 2006, 2008). I will present recent experimental studies supporting this view. I will also discuss a pedagogical implication of this model, namely, that an enhanced focus on practicing grammar in language classrooms will be beneficial to learners.

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