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Review of  The L2 Acquisition of Tense–Aspect Morphology

Reviewer: Asya Pereltsvaig
Book Title: The L2 Acquisition of Tense–Aspect Morphology
Book Author: Maximo Rafael Salaberry Yasuhiro Shirai
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Book Announcement: 14.397

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Date: Sat, 08 Feb 2003 00:25:13 +0100
From: Asya Pereltsvaig <>
Subject: Review: The L2 Acquisition of Tense-Aspect Morphology

Salaberry, Rafael and Yasuhiro Shirai, eds. (2002) The L2 Acquisition of
Tense-Aspect Morphology. John Benjamins. Hardback ISBN 90-272-2495-1 (Eur.)
/ 1-58811-217-9 (US).

Asya Pereltsvaig, California State University Long Beach

This volume is a collection of papers presented at a colloquium on
"Description and explanation in L2 acquisition of tense-aspect morphology:
complementary perspectives" at the 21st Annual Meeting of American
Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL), with several additional
contributions. The papers in this volume deal with the issues related to
second language (L2) acquisition of tense and aspect (T&A) morphology, and
cover a wide variety of languages, including English, Spanish, Italian,
French, Chinese and Japanese. The papers also represent a variety of
theoretical approaches ranging from generative grammar to
functional-typological linguistics. In addition, the volume provides a
review of first language (L1) acquisition research on T&A. Although the main
focus of the volume is on the theoretical conclusions that can be drawn from
the research, methodological issues involved in such research are attended
to as well. Overall, this book is a great contribution to the field and will
be of interest to both theoretical linguists interested in tense and aspect
and applied linguists who study L2 acquisition.

In the remainder of this review, I will briefly summarize each paper and
give critical comments where appropriate. The general evaluation follows at
the end of the review.

The volume opens with an introductory chapter "L2 acquisition of
tense-aspect morphology" written by the editors, Rafael Salaberry and
Yasuhiro Shirai. In this chapter, they provide a comprehensive overview of
the issues addressed in the rest of the volume, as well as the controversies
involved. It must be noted that the authors do a good job in clarifying the
terminological confusion that exists in the field of aspectology, providing
definitions of key concepts and addressing the reasons that led to this
confusion. They also alert the reader to some potential methodological
sources of discrepancy among the findings in the other chapters of the

The rest of the volume may be divided into two parts: five introductory
chapters which address general issues and review previous research in the
field, followed by 10 empirical studies that present results of the authors'
recent research.

Chapter 2 by Richard Weist provides a review of the findings in the field of
L1 acquisition of T&A. This review is particularly relevant since much of
the research in L2 acquisition of T&A came after and was largely based on
the research in the L1 acquisition field. Just like the volume itself, the
review of L1 acquisition covers studies in a variety of theoretical
frameworks ranging from functional-cognitive to generative approaches. In
addition, Weist compares the main findings in L1 and L2 acquisition, and
points out the differences (e.g., L2 learners acquiring tense before aspect)
and similarities (both acquisition patterns being congruent with the Aspect
Hypothesis). In this way, this review chapter sets out the goals for the
rest of the chapters in the volume.

Chapter 3 "The dimensions of pastness" by Roger Andersen provides an
overview of his earlier work and updates it with Expanded Aspect Hypothesis.
He discusses six factors that determine the acquisition of T&A: (1) verb
semantics (i.e., Vendlerian verb classes), (2) event type (i.e., unitary vs.
habitual or iterative events), (3) realis/irrealis, (4) pragmatic role, (5)
grounding, and (6) discourse structure. As can be seen from this list,
Andersen highlights the role of pragmatic factors (at least three factors in
the list involve pragmatics). Thus, it is not surprising that Andersen
advocates a discourse-functional perspective on L2 acquisition. What remains
to be seen is how to implement Andersen^Òs call for "a more rigorous research
methodology that allows us to tease apart these six dimensions in our
predictions" (p. 102).

Chapter 4 "Temporal relations in learner varieties: Grammaticalization and
discourse construction" by Colette Noyau starts out with the observation
that in the early stages of L2 acquisition learners can and do mark
temporality with means other than inflectional morphology (e.g., adverbials,
narrative sequences, etc.). This observation leads her to ask the question
of what motivates learners to go beyond this (arguably) communicatively
successful strategy of marking temporality. Noyau's claim is that learners
go through a stage of systematic uncertainly at which three types of
hypotheses ' lexical, semantic and discourse ' are competing with each
other. In other words, specific verbal endings can be associated
alternatively with specific verb types, specific temporal concepts or
specific discursive structures. Noyau builds of Bates and MacWhinney^Òs
(1989) competition model to show how these conflicts are resolved with
illustrative examples from L2 acquisition of French.

Chapter 5 "Analyzing aspect" by Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig alerts the reader to
important methodological issues involving the Aspect Hypothesis, one of the
central hypotheses in the literature on the acquisition of T&A. She outlines
two main approaches to calculating form-meaning correlations, the so-called
across-category method (which asks the question of which morphological form
is correlated with which semantic types of the verbs) and the so-called
within-category method (which asks which semantic types of verbs are marked
by which morphological form). She reanalyzes data from two previous studies
(including one of her own) from both perspectives and shows that,
surprisingly, the two approaches need not lead to the same conclusions.

The second part of the volume begins with Alex Housen's contribution "The
development of tense-aspect in English as a second language and the variable
influence of inherent aspect". This chapter provides a comprehensive report
on a large-scale study of L2 acquisition of English by two L1 groups of
learners (French and Dutch). The point of departure for this study is the
Aspect Hypothesis, which Housen claims to be only partially supported by his
study. Furthermore, he discusses other factors that are at play in the L2
acquisition of T&A, including L1 interference, properties of the specific
markers in the input language (frequency, saliency, transparency, etc.),
morphological regularity and processing mechanisms. He highlights the
importance of the distinction between regular and irregular morphology,
which has played an important role in the study of L1 acquisition of T&A, as
well as in the study of aphasic patients.

Chapter 7 "The aspect hypothesis in naturalistic L2 acquisition: What
uninflected and non-target-like verb forms in early interlanguage tell us"
by Andreas Rohde provides yet another counterexample to the Aspect
Hypothesis. Much like Housen, Rohde studies child L2 acquisition of English
(his subjects are German-speakers); his results do not necessarily support
the predictions of the Aspect Hypothesis. Consequently, Rohde proposes to
replace the absolute Aspect Hypothesis (which can be either supported or
rejected) with "aspectual effect" (which admits varying degrees of
strength). Finally, Rohde proposes to refocus the attention of the research
from looking for evidence supporting the Aspect Hypothesis to investigating
conditions under which the "aspectual effect" can be suspended.

Picking up threads from chapters 6 and 7, Sonia Rocca's contribution
"Lexical aspect in child second language acquisition of temporal morphology:
A bidirectional study" investigates child L2 acquisition in light of the
Aspect Hypothesis. Unlike the other contributions in the volume, this
chapter involves a bidirectional study of English-speaking children
acquiring Italian and Italian-speaking children acquiring English. Her
results seem to support the Aspect Hypothesis, by indicating that inherent
lexical aspectual classes constrain the acquisition of verb morphology. It
would be interesting to see whether a different methodological approach (as
discussed in Bardovi-Harlig's contribution) would bring Rocca's results more
in line with Housen^Òs and Rohde's conclusions that the Aspect Hypothesis is
not supported by child L2 acquisition patterns.

Chapter 8 "How do learners acquire the classical three categories of
temporality?" by Anna Giacalone-Ramat adds to our understanding of L2
acquisition of Italian by investigating adult learners' interlanguage. Two
L1 groups of L2 learners are considered: German speakers and English
speakers; interesting differences emerge between these two groups. English
speakers appear to overextend the use of the Imperfect to perfective
situations, whereas German speakers identify both Imperfect and Passato
Prossimo as markers of the past tense only. This leads the author to a
discussion of L1 interference effects. An analysis in terms of prototype
theory is developed within the functional approach to acquisition. The
results of Giacalone-Ramat's study largely support the Aspect Hypothesis.

Chapter 10 "Information structure in dialogic future plans: A study of
Italian native speakers and Swedish preadvanced and advanced learners of
Italian" by Eva Wiberg continues with the theme of L2 acquisition of
Italian; however, her subjects are L1 speakers of Swedish. She investigates
their "procedural knowledge" (knowledge stored in working memory and useful
for "on-line" speech production) and compares it to that of native speakers
of Italian. Her results show that even fairly advanced L2 learners exhibit
shortcomings in procedural knowledge in the context of quick tense changes
linked to future reference. Furthermore, Wiberg claims that this deficit in
procedural knowledge limits the L2 learners to the use of prototypical telic
verbs at the expense of other verb types. This raises the following
important methodological issue: to what extent research on the correlation
between verb types and acquisition of T&A morphology is biased by the
limitations in the data due to the learners' strategies in coping with their
grammatical shortcomings. This issue has been addressed by Kathleen
Bardovi-Harlig in her recent presentation at the Workshop on Syntax,
Semantics and Acquisition of Aspect (University of Iowa, May 2002). However,
it will be nice to see more research on this issue in the future.

Chapter 11 "Reference to past events in dialogue: The acquisition of tense
and aspect by advanced learners of French" by Maria Kihlstedt investigates
data from Swedish L1 speakers as well; however, she focus is on L2 French
learners. Unlike much of the research in this area, Kihlstedt's study
concentrates on learners in the advanced end of the learning continuum. One
of her goals is to establish criteria that can distinguish between "more
advanced" and "less advanced" learners all of whom use past tense morphology
"in a virtually systematic way" (p. 323). The main criteria that Kihlstedt
identifies is the use of Imparfait: less advanced learners use it only with
states, whereas more advanced learners extend it to dynamic verbs as well.
This developmental feature is shown to correlate nicely with other features,
including overuse of Passe Compose, use of non-target-like base forms, use
of pluperfect and lexical variation of verbs. This research has interesting
implications for language pedagogy as well as for linguistic theory.

Like the previous chapter, "On viewpoint aspect interpretation and its L2
acquisition: A UG perspective" by Roumyana Slabakova and Silvina Montrul
focuses on advanced learners. Their subjects are English speakers learning
Spanish. The authors adopt the UG perspective on acquisition and, unlike
much of the research in the field, investigate comprehension of aspect
rather than its production. The experiment centered around the learners'
intuitions about sentences that validate the semantic entailments associated
with either Preterite or Imperfect. The main conclusion is that English
speakers are capable of acquiring the semantic contrast of Spanish viewpoint
aspect, which is not instantiated in their native language. Interestingly,
the results do not provide a strong support for one the main tenets of the
Aspect Hypothesis, namely that the semantic aspectual contrast for past
tense is represented earlier among telic events than among statives. This
particular result may be an artifact of the methodology and the subject pool
involved in this study.

The theme of L2 acquisition of Spanish is continued in chapter 13, "Tense
and aspect in the selection of Spanish past tense verbal morphology" by
Rafael Salaberry. His main conclusions is that the effect of lexical
aspectual semantics on the choice of past tense markers in L2 Spanish is not
as strong with intermediate learners as with advanced learners. This relates
nicely with Rohde's proposal that the Aspect Hypothesis should be replaced
with "aspectual effect", which can be more or less perceptible depending on
various factors. If Salaberry's findings are correct, one such factor will
be the level of proficiency in L2.

The final two chapters analyze data from the acquisition of
non-Indo-European languages. Chapter 14, "The acquisition and use of
perfective aspect in Mandarin" by Patricia Duff and Duanduan Li, focuses on
the perfective marker "-le" in Mandarin Chinese. Interestingly, the results
depend on the methodology chosen: in oral narratives L2 learners tend to
undersupply the perfective marker, whereas in a written editing task they
both under- and oversupply the marker. Duff and Li identify several factors
which are involved in the acquisition of aspect in L2 Mandarin, including
inherent aspect, instructional variables and L1 transfer.

Chapter 15 "The prototype hypothesis of tense-aspect acquisition in second
language" by Yasuhiro Shirai focuses on L2 acquisition of Japanese. The
starting point for this paper, as for many other papers in this volume, is
the Aspect Hypothesis, which predicts a correlation between inherent aspect
and the choice of tense-aspect markers in learners' interlanguage. According
to Shirai, the Aspect Hypothesis is only one part of a larger picture,
whereby various prototypical form-meaning associations play a role in
determining the pattern of acquisition. Inherent aspect is only one such
prototype association; another one considered in detail in this paper is
habituality, which interacts with inherent aspect in terms of past tense
marking and durative aspect marking. The spreading activation model of
speech production is applied to account for the data.

Overall, this volume is a great contribution to the field of L2 acquisition
of tense and aspect. The articles in this book cover a diverse range of
topics from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Yet, the authors adhere
to a common theme, and certain issues (e.g., the nature of the Aspect
Hypothesis) come up in several of the papers. One topic that could have been
addressed in more detail in a volume like this is the role of explicit
instruction in the acquisition of tense and aspect. Although several
contributions report on studies involving instructed learners (chapters
12-15), none of the papers address the question of instructional input

Asya Pereltsvaig teaches syntax and acquisition at California State University Long Beach. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from McGill University. In her research, she focuses on issues related to aspect, both from a theoretical and an applied point of view. Currently, she is investigating attrition of aspect among Russian immigrants.