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Instability and age effects at the lexicon-syntax interface

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Instability and age effects at the lexicon-syntax interface: Evidence from auxiliary selection in native and near-native Italian grammars

In a number of recent empirical studies, interfaces between syntax and other linguistic/cognitive systems, such as morphology and discourse, have been shown to be unstable in different types of language development, including bilingual L1 acquisition (Müller and Hulk 2001), adult L2 acquisition (Lardiere 2000, Prévost and White 2000, Sorace and Filiaci 2006) and L1 attrition (Tsimpli et al. 2004). At the same time, the same type of instability has not been found in the domain of syntax. This has lead to the hypothesis that, contrary to narrow syntax, interfaces may never be fully acquired in L2 acquisition and may not be retained in L1 attrition (Sorace 2005).

My doctoral research examines whether this also holds for the lexicon-syntax interface and, by contrasting the L2 acquisition of this interface with the L2 acquisition of narrow syntax by child and adult near-native learners, investigates whether there is an interaction between the age of first exposure to the L2 and the ultimate attainment of the two domains. The study employs a contrast between auxiliary selection with intransitive verbs in compound tenses and auxiliary change under restructuring in Italian. Whereas the first phenomenon depends on lexical-semantic factors, and thus qualifies as a phenomenon at the lexicon-syntax interface, the second one is determined by purely syntactic factors, satisfying the criteria for a narrow syntax phenomenon. More precisely, the consistency with which different subclasses of unaccusatives (arrivare ‘arrive’) and unergatives (parlare ‘talk’) select one of the two auxiliaries depends on their meaning, while the optional or obligatory change of avere ‘have’ into essere ‘be’ in restructuring constructions hinges on the presence and the position of a clitic (Lui ha/è voluto andare a casa, ‘He wanted to go home’, Lui ha/è voluto andarci, Lui ci *ha/è voluto andare, ‘He wanted to go there’). In order to minimise the effects of the L1, the study focuses on Croatian-speaking learners of Italian because the phenomena under scrutiny are not instantiated in Croatian.

Two groups of near-native L2 speakers, comparable with respect to the length and type of exposure to Italian, but different with respect to the age of first exposure to it, and a group of adult L1 speakers performed a self-paced and a speeded version of the acceptability-judgement task. In the self-paced version, the determinacy of the subjects’ intuitions on auxiliary selection was measured by means of the Magnitude Estimation technique, and in the speeded version, by recording reaction times and accuracy. Both versions of the task yielded compatible results. The two groups of near-native speakers patterned with native speakers with respect to auxiliary selection with intransitive verbs in compound tenses, but diverged from them in different ways with respect to auxiliary change under restructuring, showing to be more sensitive to lexical semantic than to purely syntactic constraints on auxiliary selection in Italian. This suggests that, contrary to predictions, the lexicon-syntax interface is less problematic and less susceptible to age effects in L2 acquisition than narrow syntax. Such findings call for a more fine-grained approach to language development, differentiating between different types of interface (cf. Tsimpli and Sorace 2006) and different phenomena within narrow syntax in terms of instability and susceptibility to age effects, in accounting for the diversity of developmental outcomes exhibited by different types of learners in different domains.

References

Lardiere, D. (2000) Mapping features to forms in second language acquisition. In J. Archibald (ed.) Second Language Acquisition and Linguistic Theory. Blackwell. 102-129.

Müller, N. and Hulk, A. (2001) Crosslinguistic influence in bilingual language acquisition: Italian and French as recipient languages. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 4. 1–21.

Prévost, P. and White, L. (2000) Missing surface inflection or impairment in second language acquisition? Evidence from tense and agreement. Second Language Research 16. 103-133.

Sorace, A. (2005) Selective optionality in language development. In L. Cornips and K.P. Corrigan (eds.) Syntax and Variation. Reconciling the Biological and the Social. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 55-80.

Sorace, A. and Filiaci, F. (2006) Anaphora resolution in near-native speakers of Italian. Second Language Research 22. 339-368.

Tsimpli, I., Sorace, A., Heycock, C. and Filiaci, F. (2004) First language attrition and syntactic subjects: a study of Greek and Italian near-native speakers of English. International Journal of Bilingualism 8. 257-277.

Tsimpli, I. and Sorace, A. (2006) Differentiating interfaces: L2 performance in syntax-semantics and syntax-discourse phenomena. In D. Bamman, T. Magnitskaia and C. Zaller (eds.) Proceedings of the 30th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press. 653-664.

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