The Development of Fine-Grained Phonological Knowledge in Adult Second Language Learners of Spanish

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ABSTRACT. The present study used novel words to investigate adult Spanish learners' sensitivity to subtle, yet statistically predictable subpatterns in stress and diphthongization. It builds on recent findings showing that native speakers have remarkably fine-grained knowledge of the statistical patterns of their language (e.g. Bod et al. 2003, Bybee & Hopper 2001). Specifically, this experiment examined stress assignment in /n/-final nouns and the diphthong/ mid-vowel alternation in derived forms, following Aske's (1990) and Eddington's (1998) work with native speakers. Results showed that early in acquisition adults are sensitive to the fact that Spanish nouns ending in /en/ receive final or penultimate stress equally, whereas other /n/-final nouns almost exclusively receive final stress. Learner performance on diphthongization in derived words, a more complex statistical pattern, did not match the pattern in the Spanish lexicon, but was dependent on particular suffixes. The results are discussed in light of usage-based theories of language acquisition and grammar. *

1. INTRODUCTION. This study sought to explore the acquisition of two subtle phonological subpatterns in adult English speaking learners of Spanish as a second language (L2), stress assignment in /n/-final nouns and the diphthong/mid-vowel alternation in derived words. These subpatterns represent apparent exceptions to the rules of stress and diphthongization in Spanish, but corpus studies and native speaker behavior have shown that they are in fact productive. In particular, it has been shown that while most /n/-final nouns in Spanish pattern with other consonant-final nouns in receiving final stress, /en/-final nouns are equally likely to receive either final or penultimate stress. Furthermore, native speakers assign stress to nonce (invented) words according to this pattern (Aske 1990). Likewise, alternating diphthongs generally appear as diphthongs when stressed, and appear as monophthongs when unstressed. Eddington (1998) showed that each of a series of derivational suffixes was associated with a different probability that an alternating diphthong would surface as a diphthong in unstressed position, in apparent violation of the rule. Native speakers behaved in accordance with this pattern when given novel derivations based on alternating stems. It is striking that native speaker behavior follows so closely the statistical distribution of these small-scale and otherwise seemingly idiosyncratic subpatterns. The present study builds on these findings by asking whether adults learning L2 Spanish over the course of the first five semesters of university level Spanish also respond to this fine level of statistical detail in the lexicon, and it compares their behavior with the patterns in the native speaker lexicon. The approach taken is situated within a usage-based framework that provides a mechanism by which repeated exposure to lexical items and phonological patterns yields a dynamic and probabilistic grammar in which even very small-scale patterns may be productive. The following section presents a discussion of usage-based theory and its possible application to adult second language acquisition (SLA). This is followed by a review of the relevant research on stress assignment and diphthongization in Spanish. The paper then proceeds to describe the experimental methods and results.

2. USAGE-BASED THEORY AND SLA. A robust body of research in the first language (L1) domain increasingly reveals the highly nuanced and fine-grained knowledge that native speakers have of their L1 grammar (e.g. Barlow & Kemmer 2000, Bod et al. 2003, Bybee & Hopper 2001). This research extends to all domains of language use, including phonotactics (Frisch et al. 2000; Luce & Large 2001; Vitevitch & Luce 1998, 1999), phonology (Pierrehumbert 200la, Pierrehumbert 2001b, Pierrehumbert 2003), morphophonology (Baayen 2003, Bybee 2001), and syntax (Goldberg 1995, Manning 2003). …