The topic of second language acquisition is of paramount importance in modern linguistics; it is an area the discoveries in which might permit significant advancements not only in the theory of linguistics but also in education, psychology, and, probably, in the cognitive science. This topic is also strongly connected to the theory of universal grammar, which states that people possess certain blueprints which allow them to develop their knowledge of a language. To further develop this field, a variety of tools for language analysis has been developed and used (MacWhinney 2). The current paper investigates such an issue as the acquisition of syntax skills in the process of studying a second language by children and adult individuals. This issue is investigated in the light of several aspects of second language acquisition, such as the emergence of syntax in learners; the use of specific constructs such as subjectless sentences, wh-questions, the passive voice, pronouns and coreference; certain properties of the language they are attaining and of the learners themselves, such as the parameter setting and the argument structure of the language in question, the initial state of the learner and their ultimate attainment, and so on. Finally, a brief conclusion is provided at the end of the paper.
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Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar
It has been supposed that humans possess a certain “in-built” system which considerably facilitates the process of learning of their first language (e.g., as children, they develop language skills, and these skills go beyond the language input that they were exposed to) and possibly assists in learning the second language (White 2-4). It is stressed that this system, which has been called the universal grammar, “provides a genetic blueprint, determining in advance what grammars can (and cannot) be like” (White 2).
If it is assumed that the theory of universal grammar is true, then it is clear that universal grammar provides certain constraints for second language learners during the process of second language acquisition (White 22). When second language learners demonstrate the use of principles of the second language that they are learning which could not have been learned by them from the input of the second language that they received and which differ from similar principles in their mother tongue, the theory of universal grammar is supported (White 22).
When it comes to learning a second language and to the acquisition of its syntax, it might be possible to state that children provide considerable evidence in favor of the existence of the universal grammar due to the fact that their knowledge of their mother language is more limited than that of adults, which means that they have less knowledge that might permit them to rule out ungrammatical sentences (White 29).
Emergence of Syntax
It is stated that children start combining words into phrases when they reach the age of approximately 2 years (Guasti 101). There are several aspects of the syntax that needs to be learned by children, for example, the order in which the constituents of speech are to be used, or the structure of different clauses; these often vary in different languages (Guasti 101). At initial stages of language acquisition, children usually omit some constituents of phrases and sentences, therefore not adhering to the principles of the syntax of their language; for instance, kids often may e.g. miss the third person inflection (-s) or the past tense ending (-ed) (Guasti 106). However, with time, they start using the language more appropriately (White 3).
It might be possible to state that the same holds true for bilingual children during the process of their second language acquisition; eventually, they start using the syntax of their second language (more or less) correctly even despite the fact that they are rarely taught this syntax formally. Because the input of syntactic information that they receive is often more limited than their emerging practical knowledge of syntax, this allows for assuming that some type of universals (universal grammar) are in play (Lakshmanan 319). Adults, on the other hand, learn their second language much more slowly than bilingual children, and in a different way; they are often taught the formal syntactic structures that are correct in the second language that they are learning. However, as they develop syntactic knowledge, the mistakes that they make are not random but tend to be systematic, which also allows for assuming that some universal grammar influences this (White 2-6).
Another topic related to second language acquisition pertains to the subject omission in certain types of sentences. In some languages, it is allowed to omit the subject of a sentence in certain situations; often, the subjects in these sentences are identified by the preceding sentences (White 102-104). Such languages include Korean, Italian, and Spanish (White 102-104). On the other hand, in some languages, the overt presence of the subject in a sentence is required; such languages include English and German (White 102-104).
When children acquire their first language, they often omit the subject of a sentence, regardless of whether it is allowed by the syntactic rules of that language (Guasti 151). However, as they mature, children learn to properly use the subject in the sentence. Interestingly, while learning a second language in which a null subject is not allowed, children may also come to the conclusion that the subject should not be omitted after they have been learning that language for some time, even if their first language permits for the subject omission (Lakshmanan 319). On the other hand, when adults study language in which the subject omission is prohibited, they are often explicitly taught to always use a subject in a sentence, so it not clear whether they would come to a conclusion about the incorrectness of the subject omission on their own.
When it comes to wh-questions, it is stated that in most languages, including English, an important aspect of the formulation of these questions is that they begin with the wh-question word, which is then followed by a clause (Guasti 187). It is also stressed that there exists a universal constraint that governs the way in which these questions are formulated, the wh-criterion, the crux of which is twofold: a) a wh-word is required to be placed in a specifier-head relation to the head of the sentence that has the wh-feature, and b) ahead that has the wh-feature also needs to be in a specifier-head relation to the wh-operator (Guasti 189).
It appears to hold true that children using English as their first language, as well as bilingual kids, tend to follow the requirement about the placement of the wh-word prior to the clause. There are also reasons to believe that children utilize relative clauses with a hierarchical structure which features recursion as its main mechanism (Guasti 224). However, regardless of that, it is apparent that children comply with the above-mentioned wh-criterion while forming their wh-questions; adults also do so (Guasti 187-190). Therefore, while English learners (both young and adult) may miss auxiliary verbs or occasionally not invert them, the basic structure of the wh-question is followed in both cases.
When discussing the topic of the use of the passive voice by children, it should be noted that studies revealed that kids tend to employ passive sentences which feature a number of particular properties; in particular, it is emphasized that children tend to experience difficulties when attempting to integrate the by-phrase into these sentences, or while trying to use non-actional verbs (Guasti 251). On the other hand, it appears that adult learners of English as their second language, in particular, those learners the first language of whom is Chinese, tend to make different kinds of mistakes; more specifically, they often tend to experience difficulties with a) the elaborate verb morphological change and b) under-use of the English passive voice (Wang 948). On the whole, it can be seen that children and adults might experience difficulties with different aspects of the sentence structure while learning English.
Pronouns and Coreference
Coreference is a situation in which several expressions that are present in the text denote the same thing or individual, that is, they have the same referent. When children acquire English, it is stated that they often tend to use expressions in which pronouns corefer with local commanding antecedents (as in the phrase “The boy touched him”), whereas it is apparent that they do not experience difficulties when attempting to reject non-local antecedents for reflexive pronouns (as in the phrase “The boy touched himself”) (Baauw and Delfitto 1). On the whole, it should be stressed that kids do not appear to have problems when it comes to binding principles, and usually know and follow them; what they experience trouble with is coreference (Baauw and Delfitto 1). In contrast, adult individuals do not seem to have problems with coreference, and the mistakes or inaccuracies that they make while using English usually pertain to specific situations (Baauw and Delfitto 1-2). It is argued that these mistakes are made by children due to the fact that their more limited inferential capabilities cause them to create “mildly reflexive” predicates in situations in which it is not permitted to do so; it is also interesting that Romance children do not make such errors due to certain structural aspects of their languages (Baauw and Delfitto 10).
The problem of parameter setting plays a critical role when it comes to the process of acquisition of a second language. It is suggested that the second language learners are impacted by principles of the universal grammar while learning that language, for these learners often tend to show a much better understanding of the language that they are studying than can be suggested on the basis of the instruction that they have received (White 100). Of course, it is not always possible to completely rule out the possibility that the source of such understanding is their first language. However, in the cases when the first and the second languages differ in their parameter settings, and the learner shows a considerably better understanding of the grammar of the second language than can be explained by their instruction, it is apparent that the existence and the strong role of the universal grammar are strongly supported. On the other hand, when the parameters of the two languages differ, and the learner shows a poor understanding of the second language, this may be used as evidence against the universal grammar, although, clearly, it does not rule of the existence of the latter (White 100).
It may be possible to state that in this respect, studies of children and adults studying a second language may present evidence pertaining to the acquisition of such a language in the conditions when the stage of acquisition of the parameters of the first language differs in different participants (White 104), which may then be used to further research the universal grammar.
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When learning a second language, an individual needs to be able to properly acquire and start using in practice the argument structure of the language that they are studying. It is paramount to stress that while argument structures are primarily related to the syntactic aspects of a language, there often exist certain semantic constraints that determine the nature of the structure of a particular argument (White 206-207). Lidz and Gleitman provide an example of this: only one entity is required in order to snore, so the sentence “My grandfather snores” only needs a verb and a noun phrase, whereas an event of kicking requires two participants, so a sentence such as “My grandmother kicked my grandfather” requires two noun phrases, where the second noun phrase is used as the object (157).
It is stated that, regardless of whether learners are or are not specifically instructed about the argument structure of the second language that they are currently learning, they still develop the knowledge of this argument structure, at least in practical terms (Lidz and Gleitman 161). This can be seen in all populations, both adults and children; in addition, it has been shown that the deaf, i.e. individuals who are to a large extent isolated from exposure to a language, also develop an appropriate argument structure (Lidz and Gleitman 158-159). Whether it should be attributed to the properties of the universal grammar or to some less specific entity contributing to learning is not known, but it should be acknowledged that learners make their own significant contributions when learning a language (Lidz and Gleitman 161).
The Initial State in Second Language Acquisition
The notion of the initial state in the second language acquisition is utilized in order to denote the non-conscious linguistic knowledge that the person who is going to study a second language possesses prior to receiving any input related to that second language (White 58). It is easy to see that prior to the acquisition of the first language, the initial state is the universal grammar; however, it is not clear whether in the process of the acquisition of the first language the universal grammar remains separate from the specific instances of that language or not (White 59). This issue is of paramount importance when it comes to determining the initial state preceding the learning of the second language. For instance, if the universal grammar only remains as a language-specific grammar related to the first language of the learner, then the initial stage of the learner prior to receiving instruction in that second language is the grammar of their first language; on the other hand, if the universal grammar “survives” the first language acquisition, then the initial stage includes the universal grammar and the grammar of the mother tongue (White 59-60).
In this regard, it should be noted that children and adults who are acquiring a second language may differ significantly when it comes to the initial state. If the universal grammar does not survive the first language acquisition as a separate entity, then children may have an advantage over adults when it comes to acquiring a second language, especially if the grammar of the latter differs considerably from that of the first language of the child. If, however, the universal grammar survives the first language acquisition, then it might be possible to state that adults have an advantage over kids with respect to the initial state preceding second language instruction, for they may be able to take advantage of both the universal grammar and the knowledge of the grammar of their first language while acquiring the second language.
The term “ultimate attainment” is utilized in order to denote the steady-state grammar of individuals who have successfully undergone the process of acquisition of a second language. It is generally assumed that all the learners of a first language eventually achieve roughly the same steady-state grammar in that language, apart from some extreme cases (White 241). However, when it comes to the ultimate attainment, it is unclear whether the steady-state grammar of second language learners will considerably differ from that of individuals who have learned the same language as their mother tongue. It is stated, however, that the ultimate attainment of persons often (but not always) does significantly diverge from the steady-state of native speakers of that language; it is also argued that the endstate grammar of second language learners is usually a grammar that is compliant with the universal grammar but is not equivalent to the grammar of their second language (White 242).
When it comes to second language acquisition among children and adults, it seems natural to assume that the kids who have started the acquisition of their second language very early (for instance, children who grow up in a bilingual environment) will have a steady-state grammar of their second language that is closer to the grammar of that language when compared to the grammar of persons who started the acquisition of that language as adults. Thus, it appears likely that children will outperform adults while learning a second language when it comes to the acquisition of grammar, and, in particular, the acquisition of syntax of that language in all its aspects.
On the whole, it should be stressed that the process of second language acquisition, and of the acquisition of its syntax, in particular, is probably influenced by some blueprint that individuals possess, which has been called the universal grammar, as well as by the grammar of the first language of learners who already have fully acquired their mother tongue. It appears clear that, while syntax acquisition is influenced by a number of various factors, children are generally able to better acquire a second language than individuals who started studying it in their adulthood.
Baauw, Sergio, and Denis Delfitto. “Coreference and Language Acquisition.” Universiteit Utrecht, Web.
Guasti, Maria Teresa. Language Acquisition: The Growth of Grammar. MIT Press, 2002.
Lakshmanan, Usha. “Child Second Language Acquisition of Syntax.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, vol. 17, no. 3, 1995, pp. 301-329.
Lidz, Jeffrey, and Lila R. Gleitman. “Argument Structure and the Child’s Contribution to Language Learning.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 8, no. 4, 2004, pp. 157-161.
MacWhinney, Brian. The CHILDES Project: Tools for Analyzing Talk. 3rd ed., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.
Wang, Yuanying. “Classification and SLA Studies of Passive Voice.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research, vol. 1, no. 6, 2010, pp. 945-949.
White, Lydia. Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2003.