L2 Deficits or Delays? Acquisition of Residual Object Drop in L2 Spanish

Madeira, A. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


This paper investigates European Portuguese (EP) speaking adult learners of Spanish and assesses their knowledge of (un)interpretable features which have been argued to lead to the possibility of object drop in Spanish. Ongoing debates about SLA have led in particular to two different hypotheses: the Interpretability Hypothesis (IH) (Hawkins & Hattori, 2006; Tsimpli & Dimitrakopoulou, 2007) argues that, while uninterpretable features will not be completely acquired if they are absent in the learners’ L1, interpretable features will be, regardless of whether they are present or absent in the learners’ L1; by contrast, the Feature Reassembly Hypothesis (FRH) (Hwang & Lardiere, 2013; Lardiere, 2009) proposes that all grammatical properties which require acquiring new features or feature reassembling raise challenges for L2 learners. To test these hypotheses, this study explores the acquisition of [+/-] interpretable features by investigating the acquisition of object drop in L2 Spanish. Object drop in Spanish is a very constrained phenomenon, which involves interpretable features such as specificity and definiteness and is affected by syntactic restrictions (e.g. Campos, 1986): only non-specific direct objects can be dropped (1) and object drop is disallowed in strong islands (2), showing that the dropped object is not pro but rather a variable bound by a topic operator in SpecCP which must agree with [-definite, -specific] features in the D head of the object (Franco, 1993; Sánchez, 2004). Unlike Spanish, EP allows specific objects to be dropped (Raposo, 1986) (3). However, the fact that the null object in EP also exhibits island effects (4) suggests that it is also a variable bound by a null operator (Raposo, 1986) or, alternatively, a null definite D that selects a pro complement, which is identified by movement to a functional projection (Raposo, 2004). Adopting the same methodology as in the pioneer work by Bruhn de Garavito & Guijarro-Fuentes (2001), in this paper we present empirical data from two experiments testing the relevant semantic and syntactic properties associated with object-drop in Spanish. Both IH and FRH predict that the subjacency constraints should be acquired easily (as they may be transferred from the learners’ L1), but they make opposing predictions regarding the definiteness/specificity restriction: difficulties are expected under FRH (as acquisition of this restriction involves feature reassembly), but not under IH (as the relevant features are interpretable). Besides a monolingual control group of 7 Spaniards from the Peninsula, one experimental group of 44 upper-intermediate/advanced EP learners of Peninsular Spanish was included (proficiency was determined by two independent tests). Participants completed a 5-point-Likert-scale grammaticality judgement task (GJT) (70 items) and a sentence completion production task (PT) (35 items) testing the definiteness/specificity constraint on object drop and the island constraints. The results suggest that learners are not sensitive to the semantic constraints: in the PT they drop objects both in [-definite, -specific] and in [+definite, +specific] contexts (41.8% and 30%, respectively), and in the GJT null objects are accepted in both [-definite, - specific] and [+definite, +specific] contexts (means: 3.39 and 3.26, respectively). As for subjacency, in the GJT the mean responses for the grammatical conditions were consistently higher than those for the ungrammatical conditions (3.66/2.54 for adjunct islands; 3.94/2.78 for complex NP islands; and 3.42/2.29 for sentential subject islands). Hence, our findings indicate that learners have sensitivity to the D-related features associated with object-drop phenomena in L2 Spanish, although not all features are acquired straightforwardly, as there is evidence of delays in the acquisition of the semantic constraints, which supports FRH. We will look at group and some individual data and discuss what they tell us in reference to current generative SLA debates and in particular to the role that (psycho-)typology may play in language development, questioning the anecdotal notion that knowing a Romance language as an L1 makes language development relatively easy when learning another Romance language.
Period29 Jan 2021
Event titleNull objects from a crosslinguistic and developmental perspective
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • European Portuguese
  • L2 acquisition
  • Spanish
  • Residual object drop