Testing two models of third language acquisition


Abstract  Linguists working on third language acquisition (L3/Ln) have recently proposed several models accounting for whether the L1 or the L2 structure has an effect when acquiring the L3/Ln. We check the Cumulative Enhancement Model (CEM, Flynn et al 2004) and the Typological Primacy Model (TPM, Rothman, 2010, 2011, in press) with a combined data set from two new studies. Both models hypothesize that all previously acquired languages might be a source of transfer. The CEM argues that any previously acquired properties are potentially available to the L3/Ln learner to use in parsing, comprehending and producing language. Crucially, prior language experiences can either enhance subsequent language acquisition or remain neutral. The TPM shares the claim that neither the L1 nor the L2 have a privileged status for initial state L3/Ln morphosyntactic transfer. However, Rothman (in press) has argued that interlanguage development is constrained by what the internal parser takes to be the (actual or perceived) structural similarity, among the three grammars. Potential cues such as similarities in the lexicon, phonetics/phonology, functional morphology, and syntactic structure influence the learners’ perceptions of similarity. Data for checking these predictions come from Authors (in press) and Authors (in press). We tested two trilingual groups: Basque native speakers with L2 Spanish (n=23) and Spanish natives with L2 Basque (n=25), both learning English, as well as a control group of native English speakers (n=24) and a bilingual Sp-E group (n=47). We discuss the relevant constructions; namely, English contrastive Topicalization and Object Drop. There is no resumptive pronoun in English Topicalization (e.g., The fish, I haven’t tried (*it) yet). Its equivalent in Spanish, Clitic Left Dislocation, has an obligatory resumptive clitic while Basque does not. Hence Basque and English are similar for this construction. The CEM predicts that Topicalization will be easy for both trilingual groups since either the L1 or the L2 coincide with English in lacking a resumptive element. The TPM predicts that Spanish will be perceived as the typologically closer language, and transfer from Spanish will make Topicalization hard to acquire. Actual results support the TPM: Topicalization is not acquired by our participants. Object Drop in English is unacceptable (Q: Do you drink enough water? A: No, I don’t drink (*any/much), while it is perfectly fine in Basque and only allowed in generic contexts in Spanish. Both models predict this construction will be hard to acquire fully. Actual results point to initial transfer from Spanish but eventual successful acquisition by both trilingual groups. We conclude that the CEM is challenged by our results, while the TPM needs to be fine-tuned. The question is why one type of harmful transfer can be overcome but another type cannot. We discuss possible explanations of this issue.

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