Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

The Acquisition of the Passive Alternation by Kuwaiti EFL Learners

Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

The Acquisition of the Passive Alternation by Kuwaiti EFL Learners

Article excerpt


This study attempts to test whether fifty advanced Kuwaiti EFL learners have acquired the English passive alternation. To this end, the researchers used a Grammaticality Judgment Task (GJT) to check whether the participants would be able to distinguish between alternating and non-alternating verbs. The verbs used in the test were chosen based on their frequency in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). The results reveal that positive transfer from L1 played a big role in the participants' correct answers on the test, especially with regard to the verbs that passivise. Additionally, the participants may have provided wrong answers on the GJT due to their unfamiliarity with some of the verbs. However, the participants faced various difficulties with the verbs that do not passivise. These difficulties could be ascribed to over-generalising the passivisation rule, or confusing the non-causative with the passive construction. Their overall score suggests that they have not acquired the English passive alternation (total mean=45%). The study concludes with some recommendations for further research.

Keywords: syntax, passive-active alternation, argument structure, second language acquisition, theta roles, Arab EFL learners

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

1. Introduction

In his discussion of the famous leamability problem known as "Baker's paradox", Pinker (1989, p. 8) outlined four different lexico-syntactic alternations that exhibit the same leamability problem found in Baker's paradox. These four alternations include the locative alternation, dative alternation, causative alternation, and passive alternations. Table 1 below demonstrates these four types:

Coppock (2009, p. 1) explained that Baker's paradox revolves around three presuppositions, namely: (1) productive patterns have exceptions that are viewed as arbitrary; (2) productive generalisations do exist; and (3) unavailability of negative evidence i.e., ungrammatical evidence of a particular sentence type. More specifically, Coppock (2009, p. 1) indicated that a pattern is seen as productive if there is an unlimited number of items which can manifest that pattern. For example, an unlimited number of verbs can be used in the double-object structure found in dative verbs, such as Sam told Mary a story. Therefore, it can be seen that a certain pattern is productive if a newly coined word can be used to manifest that pattern. However, in reality, productive patterns do have arbitrary exceptions. For instance, despite being qualified to be used in the dative construction with the preposition to i.e., Mike reported the crime to the police, other dative verbs such as report, which has a similar meaning to told, are seen as odd in a double-object structure i.e., *Mike reported the police the crime. In other words, it can be noticed that some verbs are eligible to be in some constructions while others do not, even if the outcome is completely logical (Pinker, 1989). It can be argued that investigating the acquisition of these lexico-syntactic alternations by first and second language learners can elicit conclusions that may shed light on the area of language acquisition. In particular, testing whether second language learners can differentiate between verbs that alternate and verbs that do not may be an area worthy of further investigation. Little attention has been given to the acquisition of the English passive alternation by EFL/ESL learners, and the difficulties that they may encounter in distinguishing between verbs that alternate and verbs that do not. Hence, this study aims to test whether advanced Kuwaiti EFL learners have acquired the English passive alternation.

2. Literature Review

2.1 Overview

It can be observed that the dative alternation has drawn much attention in the last few decades compared to the other three types (see table 1). Adopting a theory of markedness, Mazurkerwich (1984) investigated the acquisition of dative alternation in English by second language learners. …

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