Input variability and adult L2 acquisition: The case of clitic placement in European Portuguese

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


In recent years, generative L2 acquisition (L2A) research has begun to examine the role of input in grammar acquisition (Rothman & Slabakova, 2017), a factor that was traditionally neglected in this area. Many studies have shown that some phenomena (e.g., constructions at the syntax-discourse interface like left dislocations) may cause persistent difficulties in an L2 when the evidence in the input is not frequent and transparent and the L1 and the L2 differ in the relevant respects (e.g., Dominguez & Arche, 2014; Slabakova, 2015). However, overall, the role of input in adult L2A is still poorly understood. The acquisition of clitic placement in European Portuguese (EP) is a particularly relevant area for investigating this issue, since research on L1 acquisition (L1A) has found that knowledge of contexts involving some type of variability in adult grammars is acquired very late. Costa, Fiéis & Lobo (2015) show that EP-speaking children begin by generalising enclisis to proclisis contexts and acquire knowledge of proclisis contexts in a fixed sequence, going from the more categorical to the less categorical contexts in the input: negation>negative subjects/subjunctive complement clauses>adverb já ‘already’> adverbial clauses>quantified subjects. The contexts that are subject to delays in L1A and more variability in native adult grammars are those involving lexical variation (e.g., quantified subjects) and those whose syntactic status may be ambiguous
(e.g., adverbial clauses with porque ‘because’). Preliminary studies on adult L2A suggest that the acquisition route of proclisis may be similar in L1 and L2 EP (Gu, 2019, 2022). However, the following questions remain open: Are the proclisis contexts that are acquired late in L1 EP challenging in L2A? Is the developmental route of proclisis contexts in L2 EP similar to the one observed in L1A? Is convergence with the L2 possible wrt clitic placement?
To address these questions, the present study investigates clitic placement in adult L2 EP. Participants were 25 L1 EP speakers and 30 L1 Spanish-L2 EP learners (10 intermediates, 10 advanced, 10 near-natives). As clitic placement is taught explicitly, we used two tasks that tap primarily into implicit knowledge (Ellis, 2005): an elicited oral production task (EOPT) and a speeded acceptability judgement task (SAJT), which tested enclisis and proclisis in sentences without a proclisis trigger, negative sentences, indicative and subjunctive complement clauses, adverbial clauses, and quantified subjects (Figs. 1 and 2). Statistical analysis was conducted using linear mixed-effects models with random effects for participants and items.
Results in the EOPT show that, like the natives, learners prefer enclisis in the absence of proclisis triggers. In negation contexts and in subjunctive complement clauses, all groups display a preference for proclisis. In the other contexts, the native and near-native groups
clearly prefer proclisis. Advanced learners prefer proclisis in indicative complement clauses and produce similar rates of enclisis and proclisis with adverbial clauses and quantified subjects. Intermediate learners exhibit optionality in indicative complement clauses and prefer enclisis in the remaining contexts (Fig. 3). In the SAJT, all groups exhibit the same preferences regarding proclisis as in the EOPT, except the intermediate learners, who display optionality with adverbial clauses and quantified subjects (Fig. 4).
These results show that enclisis stabilizes earlier than proclisis, which develops sequentially, following a route similar to that observed in L1 acquisition: the first contexts to be acquired are negative and subjunctive clauses. The contexts where the overgeneralization of enclisis is more persistent are sentences with adverbial clauses and quantified subjects. These proclisis contexts are described as less categorical in native grammars, which is confirmed by the individual results of the control group. This may give rise to greater input variability, adding complexity to the acquisition task. As a result, prolonged input exposure is required to discover the patterns of clitic placement in both L1 and L2 EP. This study shows that input variability may cause delays in the L2A of grammar-internal properties.
Period19 Sept 2023
Event titleThe Romance Turn
Event typeConference
Conference numberXI
LocationMadrid, SpainShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational