Grammar at the Initial Stage of Acquisition: Evidence from English L1-Bulgarian L2

Mila Tasseva-Kurktchieva, U of South Carolina

This paper looks at the acquisition of morphosyntactic features in the early stages of L2 acquisition. It investigates the initial state grammar of English-speaking L2 learners of Bulgarian. We compare the acquisition of four grammatical features—gender, number, definiteness and possessive clitics—and claim that at the initial stages of L2 acquisition transfer of L1 functional structure does not play a crucial but only supporting role.

Both the native (English) and the target (Bulgarian) language in this study have fully developed DP structures with overt determiners, prenominal modifiers to the head noun, and a singular/plural distinction. We follow recent proposals (Bernstein 1993) and claim that in English there is a Number Phrase (NumP) between the lexical NP and the top functional DP. Unlike English, (i) Bulgarian assigns gender to all nouns based on morpho-phonological features (animacy irrelevant), thus projecting a Gen(der)P which immediately dominates the lexical NP (Picallo 1991); (ii) projects a Poss(essor)P which is immediately dominated by DP (Tasseva-Kurktchieva 2004); and (iii) shows overt movement of the left-most lexical element from within NP to DP where it attracts the enclitic definite article.

The study involved a P(icture) I(nterpretation) task and an E(licited) P(roduction) task and tested 31 subjects, all immersed in an intensive language program. The subjects were tested at the end of the third week of exposure to the language, first with the PI and then with the EP task. The PI task was based on White et al. (2003). For the EP task they were presented with two pictures at a time depicting variations of the same object and asked to express their choice between the variations. All questions targeted responses with a definite DP (the definiteness conditions were equal for NL and TL). The responses were analyzed for (in)correct interpretation in the PI task and for attempts to produce the L2 morpho-syntactic structures.

The results show that the L2 learners attempt to produce gender agreement in 59.57% of the cases (notably, even when gender is not required–e.g. in plural NPs), number agreement in 38.49% of the instances and overt determiners in 12.69% of the responses. This suggests that there is some but not full transfer at the initial stage. The gradual appearance of the morpho-syntactic categories is a byproduct of transfer and the syntactic operations merge and move (the latter reuquires more syntactic resources and thus prevents the immediate access to the higher functional categories).

Selected References:
Lardiere, D. 1998. Case and Tense in the fossilized steady state. Second Language Research 14: 359-375.
Picallo, M.C. 1991. Nominals and nominalization in Catalan. Probus, 3: 279-316.
Schwartz, B and R. Sprouse. 1996. L2 cognitive state and the full transfer/full access model. Second Language Research 12:40-72.
Tasseva-Kurktchieva, M. 2004. Possessives, Theta Roles, and the Internal Structure of Bulgarian DPs. In Proceedings of FASL 12: The Ottawa Meeting. pp. 251-269.
White, L. 2002. Morphological Variability in Endstate L2 Grammars: The Question of L1 Influence. BUCLD 26 Proceedings 26:758-768.
White, L., E. Valenzuela, M. Kozlowska-Macgregor and Y. Leung. 2003. Agreement in L2 Spanish: Evidence against Failed Features. McGill Working Papers in Linguistics 17.2: 153-182.