acquisition of article semantics by child and adult l1-english learners

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Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 12 (3), 2009, 337361


2009 Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S1366728909990149


Acquisition of article semantics by child and adult L2-English learners

TA N I A IO N I NUniversity of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign

M A R A LUISA Z UBIZARRETA IUniversity of Southern California

VADIM PHILIPPOVOrel State University (Russia)

This paper examines article use in the L2-English of adult and child speakers of Russian, an article-less language. In earlier work on articles in adult L2-English, Ionin, Ko and Wexler (2004) proposed that speakers of article-less L1s uctuate between dividing English articles on the basis of deniteness vs. specicity, as a result of direct access to semantic universals. The present paper examines whether similar uctuation is present for child L2-English learners. Results of an elicitation study with L1-Russian child and adult learners of English show that both groups of learners exhibit sensitivity to deniteness as well as specicity. At the same time, it is found that the behavior of child L2-learners is more consistent with natural language data than that of adult L2-learners. It is proposed that both children and adults have domain-specic knowledge of semantic universals, but that adults, unlike children, also use explicit strategies. This proposal is considered in light of the literature on explicit vs. implicit knowledge.

A major question in the eld of second language (L2) acquisition concerns whether children and adults acquire a second language in the same way. Traditionally, the focus of much literature on critical periods in L2-acquisition has been on ultimate attainment: whether L2-learners who began acquiring the L2 in childhood (early learners) outperform those who did not begin the acquisition until adulthood (late learners). The general nding has been that early L2-learners tend to outperform late L2-learners on tests of L2-grammar, although researchers disagree as to whether the source of this difference is biological, social, or input-driven, with evidence against critical periods coming from the cases of near-native late L2-learners (see, among many others: Johnson and Newport, 1989, 1991; Lee and Schachter, 1998; DeKeyser, 2000; and the papers in Singleton and Lengyel, 1995, and in Birdsong, 1999; see Herschensohn, 2007, for an overview). More recently, L2-researchers have begun to examine the PROCESSES at work in child vs. adult L2-acquisition (see, for instance, Lazarova-Nikovska, 2005; Unsworth, 2005; Blom and Poliensk , 2006; Song and Schwartz, s a* We would like to thank our undergraduate research assistants, Jomeline Balatayo, Erin Bardales, Anna Bokarius, Erin Kunkle and Matthew Wallace for their help with the data collection and analysis in the U.S., and students at Orel State University for their help with the data collection in Russia. We are grateful to William Rutherford for allowing us the use of his cloze test for measuring L2-learners prociency. The research reported here is supported by NSF grant # BCS-0444088 (Principal Investigator: Mara Luisa Zubizarreta) and by a University of Southern California undergraduate research grant. We are grateful to Silvina Montrul and to three anonymous reviewers for comments on an earlier version of this paper.

2009; and the discussion in Schwartz, 1992, 2003, 2004). The focus of these studies has been on whether child L2-learners and adult L2-learners exhibit similar patterns during the course of acquisition. This issue has important implications for the discussion of whether L2-learners have access to Universal Grammar (UG). L2-researchers working in the generative framework generally agree that child L2-learners have access to UG, while there is much more debate concerning whether adults do as well. As laid out by Schwartz (1992, 2003, 2004), similar patterns of development of child and adult L2-learners, with the L1 held constant, provide evidence that adult L2-acquisition, like child L2-acquisition, is UG-constrained. Child/adult parallels have typically been investigated in the domains of syntax (or syntax/semantics interface) and morphology, such as object scrambling (Unsworth, 2005) and inectional morphology (Blom and Poliensk , s a 2006). To our knowledge, there has been no work directly examining the acquisition of ne-grained semantic distinctions by child vs. adult L2-learners. The main goal of the present paper is to add to the existing literature on age effects in L2-acquisition by examining whether child and adult L2-learners exhibit similar patterns in their acquisition of English articles. Article choice is a particularly fruitful area for this investigation, for several reasons. First, articles are notorious for being quite difcult for L2-English learners to master. Second, nearly all investigations of article meaning (as opposed to just article use/omission) in L2acquisition that we are aware of have been done with adult learners (an important exception, discussed below, is Zdorenko and Paradis, 2008), so there is little or no

Address for correspondence: Tania Ionin, Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, 4080 Foreign Languages Building, 707 South Mathews Ave., Urbana, IL 61801, USA

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T. Ionin, M. L. Zubizarreta and V Philippov . 1.1 L2-English articles and specicity Many of the early studies on L2-English articles used Bickertons (1981) framework for classifying articles on the basis of the features of SPECIFIC REFERENCE and HEARER KNOWLEDGE. However, these features were not given precise semantic entries. Ionin (2003), adopting existing semantic analyses of deniteness and specicity (see Heim, 1991; Lyons, 1999), proposed that L2English article choice should be viewed in terms of SPECIFICITY AS SPEAKER INTENT TO REFER and DEFINITENESS AS PRESUPPOSITION OF UNIQUENESS. Informal denitions of these semantic features (from Ionin et al., 2004) are given in (1). The formal denition of deniteness adopted in these studies is the Fregean analysis of deniteness, from Heim (1991), while the formal denition of specicity was developed by Ionin (2003, 2006), based on Fodor and Sags (1982) concept of referentiality. (1) If a Determiner Phrase (DP) of the form [D NP] is . . . a. [+denite], then the speaker assumes that the hearer shares the presupposition of the existence of a unique individual in the set denoted by NP. b. [+specic], then the speaker intends to refer to a unique individual in the set denoted by the NP, and considers this individual to possess some noteworthy property. Ionin et al. (2004) proposed that deniteness and specicity are semantic universals which underlie article choice cross-linguistically.1 English and many other western European languages morphologically encode deniteness in their article systems, but not specicity. This is illustrated by the examples in (2), which show that the is used in contexts that are [+denite], as in (2ab), and a in contexts that are [denite], as in (2cd), regardless of whether the context is [+specic] or [specic]. (2) a. [+denite, +specic] context I want to talk to the winner of this race she is a good friend of mine. b. [+denite, specic] context I want to talk to the winner of this race whoever that happens to be. c. [denite, +specic] context Professor Robertson is meeting with a student from her class my best friend Alice.1

information of how age might affect acquisition of article semantics. And nally, Ionin, Ko and Wexler (2004) have specically argued that L2-English learners whose L1s lack articles have direct, UG-mediated access to semantic universals underlying article use. This argument for UGinvolvement would receive support if the same patterns were found with child as with adult L2-learners, on the assumption that child L2-learners have access to UG. Building on the Ionin et al. (2004) study, we will compare article (mis)use among adult and child L2-English learners from the same article-less L1 (Russian), and show that there are both similarities and differences between the two age groups. The data reported here are part of a larger study comparing L2-English article use among adult and child speakers of Russian and Spanish (see also Ionin, Zubizarreta and Bautista Maldonado, 2008). On the one hand, we will show that the effects of specicity that Ionin et al. (2004) found in adult L2English article use are also present for child L2-English learners, supporting the view that learners patterns of article (mis)use are UG-related. On the other hand, we will show that the patterns exhibited by child L2-learners are more consistent with natural language data than those exhibited by adult L2-learners. We will propose that while both children and adults have domain-specic linguistic knowledge of deniteness and specicity, adults also make use of explicit strategies, to a greater extent than children. We will discuss the implications of these ndings for the study of article use in child L1, child L2, and adult L2-acquisition, and for explicit and implicit knowledge more generally. This paper is organized as follows. In section 1, we discuss previous ndings with adult L2-English learners, and reconsider the original proposal of Ionin et al. (2004) in light of new cross-linguistic data. Section 2 provides an overview of studies on the acquisition of English articles by young children, and discusses the motivation for doing childadult comparisons. In section 3, we present the methods and results of the present study. Section 4 discusses these ndings and puts forth our proposal. Section 5 concludes the paper with a discussion of how L2-acquisition of articles compares to L1-acquisition of articles. 1. Adult L2-acquisition of English articles The acquisition of Eng


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