Tag Archives: First Language Acquisition

UIC TiL: Kim Potowski

This Friday, April 9th, UIC’s very own Kim Potowski will be presenting a talk entitled, “Intrafamilial dialect contact: The Spanish of MexiRicans in Chicago.”

Join us at 3 PM in 1750 University Hall (601 S. Morgan St. Chicago, IL 60607) for the talk and as usual light refreshments will be provided.

Kim Potowski (University of Illinois at Chicago)
Intrafamilial dialect contact: The Spanish of MexiRicans in Chicago

When speakers of different dialects share social space, interact frequently, and wish to gain each other’s approval or show solidarity, there exists the very strong possibility that they will adopt features from each other’s dialect. This process is known as accommodation, and when individual accommodations spread through a speech community over a long term, a common result is dialect mixing. Dialect mixing has received considerable attention in English (Trudgill 1986; Schneider 2003; Bauer 1994; Kerswill 2002) and in some parts of the Spanish-speaking world. However, there is a gap in our knowledge of Spanish dialect contact in the United States, which at approximately 30 million speakers is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking nation and the most dialectally diverse.

In addition, there is an increasingly common and particularly interesting case of Spanish dialect contact in the U.S.: What does a child’s Spanish look like when members of two different ethnolinguistic groups – a Mexican and a Puerto Rican, for example – marry and each speak their own Spanish dialect in the home? This situation, referred to as intrafamilial dialect contact, falls within Hazen’s (2002) call for research on the family as an intermediate grouping between the individual and the speech community. I will present a brief summary of general principles of dialect contact before examining studies of Spanish dialect contact in the U.S. and then focusing on cases of intrafamilial dialect contact in Chicago.


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.

Babies cry in their first language: Tränen, tears, o lágrimas?

In the newest edition of the journal Current Biology an interesting article was published about the language in which babies cry.

Apparently infants have already begun acquiring phonology at such an early stage that long before they can speak, they already cry in their native language.  In fact, the authors suggest that fetuses can “memorize auditory stimuli from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language.”  It is not surprising then that their first sounds be somewhat language-specific.  French infants, for example, were found to prefer rising intonations in their cries and German infants preferred falling tones.  Further, the suggested effect is that “adult-like processing of pitch intervals allows newborns to appreciate musical melodies and emotional and linguistic prosody.”

“Newborns’ cry melody is shaped by their native language”. Birgit Mampe, Angela D. Friederici, Anne Christophe, Kathleen Wermke. Current Biology 2009, Nov 5, doi 10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064

Other publications have begun taking notice as well.  The University of Würzburg has a discussion of the implications in German and English. And Uruguay’s LR21 has posted an article in Spanish.

E-Interview: Natascha Müller, Part 3 – Testable Assumptions

In the final segment of our e-interview with Natascha Müller she presents some testable assumptions, which she has corroborated in her own research.

“The two assumptions for delay effects are testable, since they make different predictions. In my research I have argued against Serratrice, Sorace & Paoli (2004) and I have assumed that the presence and direction of the influence is not a question of MORE-or-LESS constraints, but a question of whether pragmatics decides on syntactic options or not. The invasive function of pragmatics is complex (Italian, Spanish), non-invasiveness is derivationally neutral (English, German, French). If delay is not due to a default strategy (processing load in one language) but motivated by cross-linguistic influence where the linguistically more complex analysis of language A is avoided in favor of the less complex analysis of language B, we can make the following predictions which have been corroborated in the child data we have analyzed:

a)  The effect should only be observable in bilingual children with particular language combinations, i.e. it is not due to the fact that the children acquire two languages, one with more, the other with less constraints, generally speaking. Only an approach to delay effects which takes into account the structure of the two languages involved will be able to account for Continue reading

E-Interview: Natascha Müller, Part 2 – Delay Effects in Bilingualism

Continuing with our e-interview, Natascha Müller talks about delay effects in childhood bilingualism:

“Meanwhile, there is ample evidence for delay effects of early child bilingualism. Bilingualism can slow down the acquisition process with respect to age of acquisition and MLU; in other words, for some grammatical properties, bilingual children reach the adult norm later (age and/or MLU) than monolingual peers. There is also evidence which shows that delay effects are observable in balanced as well as in unbalanced children (Müller & Patuto 2009), which means that an uneven development of the two languages is not a prerequisite for delay. Furthermore, although unbalanced language development can slow down acquisition with respect to age, it does not necessarily lead to differences between bilinguals and monolinguals with respect to MLU in the weakly developed language (Müller & Pillunat 2008). It looks as if delay is related to complexity in the following sense: Language A and B exhibit different degrees of complexity for a particular grammatical property. In Hulk & Müller (2000) and Müller & Hulk (2001), complexity is defined as the coordination of information from different modules, pragmatics and syntax for example. Delay is indicative of target-deviant grammatical representations which, during the course of acquisition, have to be “corrected”. The child will use the less complex analysis of language A in relation to grammatical property X when using language A and language B. Müller & Patuto (2009) further refine the scenario for delay effects of cross-linguistic influence and conclude that in addition to complexity defined as the coordination of information from different modules, the surface strings of the two languages A and B have to be analyzable in terms of the syntactic derivation of language A (which is less complex). This prerequisite looks trivial at first sight, but it excludes the possibility that children come up with analyses for the more complex language B which are not also “supported” by the evidence from language B. Also, it makes the interesting prediction that if the more complex language B is acquired together with a language which encodes the respective grammatical property in such a radically different way than in language A (the less complex language), the derivation of language A would not be “supported” by the evidence of language B when used by the child while speaking language B. Continue reading

E-Interview: Natascha Müller, Part 1 – Two Approaches to Bilingualism

Along with our series on blogs around the world we are also featuring e-interviews with researchers in the field of bilingualism.  We have the privledge this week to present the thoughts of Natascha Müller of the Bergische Universität Wuppertal.  We asked her why the study of bilingualism in children is relevant:


The Wuppertal research group on bilingual first language acquisition, funded by the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, German Science Foundation)

Row 1: Veronika Jansen, Natascha Müller, Elisa Turano, Mayte Jiménez Lopez, Laia Arnaus Gil
Row 2: Dunja Stachelhaus, Annette Pötzsch, Nadine Eichler, Vanessa Colado Miguel, Alban Beysson, Tobias Stallknecht, Marisa Patuto.

“Research in bilingual first language acquisition has been guided by two main approaches: Either it has been argued that bilingual children are not able to separate their two languages from early on since the two languages influence each other (Volterra & Taeschner 1978) or it has been shown that separation is possible from early on and that there is no evidence for cross-linguistic influence (Meisel 1989, Genesee 1989, Genesee, Nicoladis & Paradis 1995). Put differently, separation and cross-linguistic influence have been considered as being mutually exclusive in describing early child bilingualism. The main reason for the assumption of mutual exclusiveness is that most research has conceptualized separation and influence as involving whole language systems (or languages). Among the first to question this view were Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy (1996). The main observation is that some grammatical domains develop separately in early child bilingualism while the bilingual child uses language A to bootstrap aspects of the syntactic system of language B for others.

 What does ‘bootstrap’ in this context mean? Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy analyze the monolingual (containing only elements of the context language) and the mixed utterances of Hannah, a bilingual English-German child. On the basis of the respective monolingual utterances, they find that German is much more advanced than English with respect to lexical and syntactic aspects of temporal and modal auxiliary verbs. In order to ‘help herself out’ when speaking English, Hannah produces mixed utterances of the following type:

 (1) Kannst du move a bit                (Hannah, 2;4-2;9, Gawlitzek-Maiwald     
      Can you move a bit                                     &   Tracy 1996:915)

 In example (1), the left periphery comes from German, while the lexical verb and the adverb are in English. Until the English system of modal and temporal auxiliaries has been fully acquired by the child, she will fill in lexical material from German, a strategy which may also help the child to instantiate the English system: “Something that has been acquired in language A fulfils a booster function for language B.” (Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy 1996: 903) The situation can be reversed for other grammatical phenomena

(Click to Read More and Stay Tuned for parts 2 and 3 with Nascha Müller)

Continue reading