Academic journal article Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication

Incorporating Second Language Acquisition Research into Teacher Education

Academic journal article Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication

Incorporating Second Language Acquisition Research into Teacher Education

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Among the linguistic issues that should play an important role in teacher education, we would like to focus on two: (i) how formal features realized in the target language are represented in the mind of the native speaker and (ii) how native speakers deal with ambiguity. While the first issue occupies a central place (directly or indirectly) in teacher training, even when grammar and formal instruction are not the focus of a given program, the second issue, to the best of our knowledge, is seldom if ever addressed. We have chosen to discuss these two somehow different linguistic issues because recent research provides us with information about the nature of the intuitions and representations that second language learners need to internalize for achieving native-like competence in the target language.

As we state in Liceras (2010), formal features were already relevant for interlanguage descriptions carried out by the researchers who pioneered the adoption of the Extended Standard Theory (Chomsky, 1977) and the Government and Binding model (Chomsky, 1981) for the analysis of native and non-native systems (Flynn, 1983; Liceras, 1983; Mazurkevich, 1984; White, 1985, among others). However, it is within Chomsky's Minimalist Program (Chomsky, 1995, 2000; Hornstein, Nunes and Grohmann 2005, among others) that formal syntactic features become the center of leamability theory, the reason being that they are conceptualized as the elementary building units of linguistic structure. That is to say, the realization of formal features such as gender or case in a given language determines the structure of that language. Furthermore, formal features constitute one of the most recalcitrant problems that adult language learners have to confront when acquiring a non-native grammar.

In this chapter we show that Spanish dominant English-Spanish bilinguals not only classify Spanish Nouns according to the formal feature gender, but also English Nouns. We base this assertion on the code-switching preferences these bilinguals display when confronted with Determiner Phrases (DPs) such as those in (1) and (2).

(1) laffem.] h0USe[casa_fem.] / ®l[masc.] bookpihro-ma».]

(2) dfmasc.] house[casa_fem ] / lagern.] book[|it,ro_masc ]

What experimental research using acceptability judgments has shown (Liceras et al, 2008; Valenzuela et al, 2012; Liceras et al, 2012, 2013) is that Spanish dominant English-Spanish bilinguals significantly prefer the matching options in (1) where the Spanish Determiner agrees with the Spanish translation equivalent of the English Noun or the English DP respectively, over the non-matching options in (lb) and (2b) where no such agreement holds. We would like to argue that making language teachers aware of this representation of gender may provide them with tools to manipulate classroom input and/or to prepare language teaching materials. While deciding on how to deal with agreement patterns poses important challenges for teacher education, the actual object of description or analysis is rather straightforward. However, dealing with processing preferences poses greater challenges not only in terms of whether or not we should incorporate this issue into teacher education but also in terms of the elusive nature of the preferences. In fact, and even though preferences can be defined structurally in a clear-cut way, they can be blurred by pragmatic factors and even sociological and cultural factors. For instance, it has been shown that in the case of native speakers of languages such as Spanish, the ambiguity in (3a) tends to be resolved by the so-called low attachment processing strategy.

(3a) Ayer nos encontramos con la hermana[NPi] del arquitecto^] [que_ vive en Singapur]

(3b) ¿Quién vive en Singapur la hermana del arquitecto o el arquitecto? Namely, when answering the question in (3b) there is a clear preference for choosing NP1, la hermana, the head of the relative clause antecedent, rather than NP2, el arquitecto. …

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