THE ACQUISITION OF TENSE AND AGREEMENT BY EARLY CHILD SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNERS
BY MING-CHING LI
DISSERTATION Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Elementary Education in the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012
Doctoral Committee: Professor Sarah McCarthey, Chair Professor Silvina Montrul, Director of Dissertation Research Associate Professor Kiel Christianson Associate Professor Peter Golato
This longitudinal study examines the acquisition of tense and agreement morphology by child L2 learners in an early stage of language acquisition. The objectives of this study are twofold. The first is to observe the development of verb inflections and syntactic competence over time from an early stage by Chinese child L2 learners of English. The second is to determine the similarities and differences in the acquisition of verb inflections by comparing child L2 learners of this study with child L1 and adult L2 learners from the literature in this field. Participants included six Chinese-L1 English-L2 children between the ages of 7 and 9, with a length of residence in the United States between four and six months. Data were collected regularly over a period of seven months. Tasks include a conversation with the investigator on general topics, and an elicitation task via picture description. Speech production samples were audio-recorded and later transcribed to analyze the use of verb inflections: the third-person singular –s, regular past form –ed, copula be, and auxiliary be, and the use of related syntactic properties: the use of overt subjects, and the case of subject pronouns. Based on previous research, the study adopts the Separation Hypothesis, claiming that abstract properties can be present in the syntactic representation in the absence of overt morphology, and the acquisition of syntax triggers the acquisition of morphology. Results demonstrated the early acquisition of syntactic properties, the use of overt subjects and the nominative case for the subject pronouns, while conversely, verb inflections were largely omitted. This suggests that the functional category [Infl] is already in place in the L2 initial state and that syntax acts as a trigger for the acquisition of overt morphology. The Separation Hypothesis is consequently supported.
To Father and Mother
I never knew if I was capable of earning a doctoral degree until this moment. I started to pursue this dream in 2006, and through many tears and joy, I eventually accomplished this seemingly insurmountable feat. I could not have realized this dream without the help and support from many people. I want to thank my advisor, Sarah McCarthey, for her generosity, support and encouragement in pursuit of my research interests. I wish to thank my dissertation director, Silvina Montrul, for offering her invaluable expertise and constructive criticism to my dissertation. I am truly grateful for her time and energy to meticulously reading the manuscript. I also want to thank my committee members, Peter Golato and Kiel Christianson, who offered helpful suggestions in finalizing my dissertation to a much better shape. My special thanks go to Arthur Baroody for offering me research assistantship for the past five years, providing me a financial support vital to my study. I also wish to acknowledge my friends, Emily, Jean, Sari, Tammy, and Wei-Ren for sharing my ups and downs. I want to thank my husband, Steven, who always motivated me when I feel discouraged, challenged me to think critically, and helped me whenever I needed. I would like to dedicate this dissertation to my parents and sister. I always miss them so much when I am far from home. Their unconditional love and emotional support, from the other side of the earth, gave me the strength to reach my goal.