Review of Telicity in the Second Language
| Slabakova, Roumyana (2001) Telicity in the Second Language.
John Benjamins Publishing Company, xii+233pp, hardback ISBN
1-58811-038-9, $77.00, Language Acquisition and Language
Melinda Whong-Barr, Department of Linguistics and English
Language, University of Durham
This book presents an experimental study of Bulgarian
speakers acquiring English telicity (viz. whether or not
an event has an inherent endpoint). It is argued that
English and Bulgarian instantiate two possible settings
for a parameter of telicity: a zero morpheme (English)
and a verbal affix (Bulgarian). Additionally, this
parameter implicates the (im)possibility of three
constructions: double objects, verb-particles and
resultatives. If these three constructions are shown to
be acquired simultaneously as argued for first language
(L1) acquisition (Snyder & Stromswold 1997), and if they
are further correlated with the acquisition of telicity,
then this could serve as support for the claim of Snyder
(1995) that a null telic restrictor morpheme is crucial
to this parameter.
Assuming access to UG in L2 acquisition, this study also
investigates the question of the L2 initial state, asking
whether (UG-constrained) development proceeds from the
starting point of the transferred L1 grammar or whether
access to UG mirrors that of native learners,
irregardless of the L1. The former position, the Full
Transfer/Full Access model of L2 acquisition (Schwartz &
Sprouse 1996), is argued to be supported.
This book will be of interest to L2 acquisition
researchers. However, it will also appeal to linguists
more generally as it contributes to the understanding of
Chapter 1 (Aspect and theories of second language
acquisition) introduces the rationale for the study and
provides background. The concepts of aspect and telicity
are briefly introduced along with a discussion of
parameters and the debate over whether parameters can be
reset. This is followed by a concise overview of
existing theories of L2 acquisition with regard to the
role of UG and/or the L1. This section succinctly sums
up the logical possibilities, listing the proponents of
each theoretical stance and briefly highlighting the most
relevant empirical research that supports or refutes each
of the theories. In doing so, this section provides a
clear overview of the field of generative L2 acquisition
at the moment.
Chapter 2 (Semantic and syntactic treatments of telicity)
explores existing research on aspect. Beginning with
Vendler (1967) and Dowty (1979), an overview of semantic
analyses of aspect is presented. Highlighted is the work
of Verkuyl (1993), whose aim is to formally capture
aspect as a compositional property of sentences. This is
followed by a discussion of syntactic approaches,
beginning with Tenny (1994), who argues for the syntactic
significance of affectedness as a property of arguments.
The influential work Hale & Keyser (1993) is presented,
but argued to be too general to account for the
(a)telicity of VPs. Travis' proposed AspP is seen as a
step in the right direction, and serves as the basis for
the analysis of aspect developed in the next chapter.
Chapter 3 (English and Slavic telicity: A syntactic
account) presents a feature-based syntactic account of
telicity that posits aspectual morphemes in differing
structural positions crosslinguistically. The claim for
English is that achievement and state verbs are marked in
the lexicon as [+telic] and [-telic] respectively.
Activity and accomplishment verbs, by contrast, are
underspecified and give rise to (a)telicity depending
upon whether the object is [+/-Specified Quantity]:
[+telic] is forced by a [+ Specified Quantity] object and
[-telic] by a [-Specified Quantity] object. The telic
feature is instantiated as a null morpheme and is argued
to be checked in AspP, which is located between the lower
and upper VP of a VP shell. Bulgarian operates
differently; telicity is encoded in a preverb generated
in PerfectP, a projection argued to be above AspP. The
presence or absence of such a preverb thus determines
telicity. The claim is made for two differing functional
projections in English and Bulgarian based on arguments
of scope crosslinguistically. Despite this difference
between English and Bulgarian, however, it is noted that
recent loan verbs in Bulgarian that do not take preverbs
operate like English in that telicity is determined
compositionally and not with a preverb.
Finally, this chapter argues for a unified account of
resultatives, particles and (more controversially) double
objects. Following Snyder (1995), the three
constructions are said to depend upon a null telic
restrictor morpheme, claimed to be generated below the
lower VP and to incorporate with the V. This morpheme is
not to be confused with the null telic morpheme discussed
above, claimed to be checked in AspP in English. The
connections here are admittedly ''probably indirect.''
Nevertheless, it is suggested that ''aspectual prefixes,
such as the Bulgarian perfective preverbs, 'compete' in
some way with the null telic restrictor morpheme proposed
by Snyder'' (p. 99).
Chapter 4 (First and second language acquisition of
aspect) surveys existing acquisition literature. Early
arguments for the claim that L1 children acquire aspect
before tense are shown by subsequent studies to be too
strong. However, in early development there is a
tendency toward aspect marking on activity verbs and
tense marking on accomplishment and achievement verbs.
Notably, children do not seem to use tense and aspect
markers incorrectly and they recognize a telic/atelic
distinction. The existing studies in L2 acquisition
reveal similarities. However, there is conflicting data
regarding whether L2 learners incorrectly mark stative
verbs with progressive aspect. Additionally, L2 learners
seem to show a greater bias towards marking telic
predicates with the progressive than atelic predicates.
This tendency, however, is attributed to input and
>From the review of the literature, the parallels between
first and second language development are said to argue
against the claim that there must be a certain level of
general cognitive development before grammatical tense
can be acquired. Instead it is argued that tense and
aspect distinctions are mediated by UG, for both native
child learners and nonnative adult learners.
Chapter 5 (An experimental study of the L2 acquisition of
telicity) details the Bulgarian L1 - English L2 study.
The first hypothesis is that learners of low proficiency
will have difficulty with English telicity because,
unlike Bulgarian, English has no overt telicity marker.
According to the second hypothesis, learners of higher
proficiency are expected to acquire telicity because of
the availability of UG. The third hypothesis expects the
co-occurrence of the acquisition of telicity in English
with the acquisition of the proposed cluster of
constructions: verb-particles, resultatives and double
objects. The final hypothesis focuses on the three
constructions, expecting them to cluster in the
individual interlanguage grammars of the subjects. The
130 adult L1 Bulgarian speakers were divided into
proficiency groups by means of a cloze test: 35 Low
Intermediate subjects (L-I), 50 High Intermediate
subjects (H-I) and 45 Advanced subjects (Adv.). There
were also 32 L1 English control subjects. There were
four experimental tasks.
A grammaticality judgment task tested for knowledge of
the three constructions. The learners, regardless of
proficiency, were less accurate than the control group;
notably the mean responses of the L-I speakers as a group
were at chance level. Yet a look at individual results
show statistically significant correlations between the
three constructions for all groups.
The other three tasks tested for knowledge of
(a)telicity. The Aspect Task consisted of 41 complex
sentences each with a telic/atelic clause and a
habitual/imperfective clause. Telic-habitual and atelic-
imperfective pairings are correctly deemed odd by all
groups while telic-imperfective and atelic-habitual
pairings are deemed natural. Much like for the control
group, this result is robust for the Adv. and H-I groups,
but only slight with the L-I group (though all show
statistically significant differences). In the second
task, subjects were asked to translate into Bulgarian the
(a)telic clauses from the Aspect Task. The L-I group did
so with quite low accuracy (57%); the H-I group performed
better (78%), compared with the Adv. group (87%).
Finally, the Stories Task consisted of a pair of
telic/atelic sentences to be judged after reading a brief
story establishing the context in terms of telicity. All
groups were able to do this task successfully, though the
L-I learners - only - did significantly better on atelic
stories than telic ones.
Chapter 6 (Discussion, implications and conclusion)
summarizes the study and discusses the implications.
Each hypothesis is discussed in turn. Support is claimed
for the expectation of L1 transfer as the low-
intermediate speakers consistently have difficulty with
telic forms in English. The telic form is argued to be
more problematic since it differs from English in the
morphological marking of telicity, while the atelic forms
in the two languages superficially coincide. This claim
is bolstered by an additional study reported here
comparing these learners of English to L1 Spanish
learners of English. Spanish is shown to mirror English
in encoding telicity compositionally if the verb is in
the preterite tense. The results are reported to show
target-like responses from the Spanish speakers,
contrasting with the Bulgarian speakers. The second
hypothesis is also argued to be supported as the trend in
all tasks is a gradual increase in results by proficiency
Results germane to the third hypothesis are less
straightforward. The 26 subjects shown to have acquired
telicity and the related constructions and the 64 who
have failed to acquire either provide support for the
claim that the proposed null telic morpheme is implicated
in this cluster of constructions. Problematic are the 25
subjects who have acquired telicity, but do not show
knowledge of the constructions. (The 7 subjects (5%) who
show knowledge of the constructions but not telicity are
considered unproblematic as such a small number can be
attributed to performance errors.) It is suggested that
the null telic morpheme is a necessary but not sufficient
property and that an additional property may be
implicated in this parameter. The third property
suggested is the N-N compounding property, suggested by
Snyder (1995) to also be implicated in complex predicate
The final hypothesis correlating the three constructions
is argued to have received some support. However, the
verb-particles and resultatives seem to correlate much
more tightly than double objects. This result provides
support for analyses which do not include double objects
in a parameter with the other two constructions. The
author concedes, however, that uncontrovertible evidence
for this fourth hypothesis is not possible given the
Issues of second language acquisition are also discussed
in this chapter. It is argued that the results support
the Full Transfer/Full Access model over any model that
includes UG access but not transfer. It also supports the
claim that parameters can be reset. The chapter concludes
with an eye toward future research; the claim that N-N
compounding is acquired before the cluster of
constructions is easily testable.
This study is impressive in its scope and thoroughness.
The author clearly presents the issues in acquisition as
well as in syntax. Accordingly, this study not only
contributes original work to the field of L2 acquisition,
but also attempts to use L2 data to support the claim
that there is an aspect parameter that implicates
telicity with resultatives, verb particles and double
One point that is not entirely clear, however, is the
precise connection between telicity and these
constructions. While the difference between Bulgarian
and English in terms of an overt/null telic morpheme is
well argued, the connection between this difference and
the additional null restrictor morpheme is more opaque
than indirect. Yet it is this null restrictor morpheme
that is argued to be pivotal to the existence of these
three constructions. The conclusion that this morpheme
is a necessary but not sufficient condition can be seen
as further weakening the claim. A related problem is the
difficulty of teasing apart correlation and causation.
Whether a learner has knowledge of two linguistic
phenomena can only provide indirect evidence for a
parameter connecting the two. Another problem with a
parameters approach is the extent to which the notion of
a strictly binary parameter seems to remain an ideal.
This does not suggest that the quest to identify
parameters is misguided, only that such a concept is
likely to be complex. Looking for support in acquisition
may prove overly optimistic.
Taking a closer look at the results of the Aspect task,
the author writes that the ''performance of the Low
Intermediate subjects . . . showing a statistically
significant difference between telic and atelic
sentences, was due to their accuracy on the atelic
condition, while their performance on the telic condition
was at chance and was probably due to guessing'' (p. 173).
It is not clear why the author shows such restraint here.
This result can be interpreted as further support for the
first hypothesis. The subjects are not 'guessing'
instead they are (sometimes) interpreting the English
telic sentences as atelic, the expected response if these
learners associate the lack of an overt morpheme with
atelicity as in Bulgarian. What does need explanation,
however, is why the low level speakers do as well as they
do. An explanation may again lie in transfer from the
L1. If it is indeed the case that recent loan verbs in
Bulgarian are like English, in that telicity is
determined compositionally and not with a preverb, the
learner may have recourse in their L1 to interpret a
sentence as atelic even in the absence of an overt
marker. Another possibility is that this low-proficiency
level is too high to capture the hypothesized transfer
effects. This last suggestion is certainly testable.
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HALE, K. & KEYSER, J. (1993) On argument structure and the
lexical expression of syntactic relations. In K. Hale &
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SCHWARTZ, B. D., & SPROUSE, R.A. (1996) L2 cognitive states
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SNYDER, W. (1995) Language Acquisition and Language
Variation: The Role of Morphology. PhD Thesis. MIT.
SNYDER, W. & STROMSWOLD, K. (1997) On the structure and
acquisition of the English dative construction.
Linguistic Inquiry 28:281-317.
TENNY, C. (1994) Aspectual Roles and the Syntax-Semantics
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VENDLER, Z. (1967) Verbs and times. Philosophical Review
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Cambridge University Press.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Melinda Whong-Barr is undertaking a PhD at the University
of Durham, UK. She is researching the second language
acquisition of English resultatives by L1 Korean
speakers. She is working within the framework of the
Full Transfer/Full Access model, looking more
specifically at the interaction between transfer and UG
access in L2 development.