Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Advanced Students' L1 (Swedish) and L2 (English) Mastery of Suffixation

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Advanced Students' L1 (Swedish) and L2 (English) Mastery of Suffixation

Article excerpt

1. INTRODUCTION

In the research literature, it seems widely agreed that gaining mastery of derivative forms is a strenuous task. In a study by Schmitt and Zimmerman focusing on advanced learners' production of suffixed words, for example, many incorrect forms produced by the L2 learners appeared. Examples are *releasement (instead of release), *minimizement (instead of minimization), *persistment (instead of persistence) and *survivation (instead of survival) (2002:147). Experiencing difficulty in gaining mastery of derived forms is, however, not only limited to non-native speakers. As a matter of fact, a significant amount of research has also shown that affixation is indeed a challenging task even for native speakers. In Schmitt and Zimmerman's study referred to above, for example, native subjects were included as a point of reference for the non-native speakers investigated. In connection with the native speakers' results, Schmitt and Zimmerman conclude that 'the performance of the native speakers indicates a high but less than complete productive knowledge of derivational morphology' (2002: 160). In fact, gaining derivative knowledge appears to be a slow incremental process for native speakers of English, starting in elementary school (Carlisle, 2000), continuing through high school (Nagy, Diakidoy & Anderson, 1993; Tyler & Nagy, 1989) and, with more infrequent words, it probably involves a lifelong learning situation (Tyler & Nagy, 1990). It also appears to be a universally difficult area of the lexicon to master. In a study on Dutch speakers' knowledge of word formation in their native language, Smedts (1988) found that the seven-year-old informants were only able to provide 14% of the forms sought, that the 13-year-old subjects were only able to give 51% and that, finally, the 17-year-olds included in his study still only mastered 66% of the forms tested.

The question then is: if mastery of word formation is such a slow incremental process even for native speakers, is it worthwhile spending time as a second language learner trying to develop affixation skills? There are three types of studies that point in the direction that it may indeed be the case (Nation, 2001: 264). Firstly, there are quite a few investigations that have focused on exploring the sources of the English vocabulary. These studies show, among other things, that a large number of words can be derived from a limited number of roots. Investigating the 7,476 most frequent words in the Lancaster-Oslo-Bergen corpus (LOB), for example, Bird (1987, 1990) was able to show that 97% of these words could be derived from 2,000 different roots. Focusing on the affixes forming these words thus seems to be time well spent. Secondly, there are studies that have investigated the proportion of affixed words in different corpora. In a study by Cunningham (1998), it was shown that affixed forms (derivational and inflectional) outnumbered stems four to one. In another study by Nagy & Anderson (1984), the ultimate aim was to find out how many word families can be found in all printed school English. They were able to show that as much as 12.8% of the different word family types seen in their study contained derivational affixes (21.9% contained inflected forms), again indicating that derivatives make up a comparatively large part of the English lexicon. Finally, there are a number of investigations that have focused on the frequency of specific affixes. White, Power and White (1989), for example, were able to show that 60% of all the words containing the prefixes un-, re-, in- and dis- could be understood once the learners knew the most common meaning of the base word. If the derived words were contextualized and knowledge of some of the less common meanings of the prefixes was gained, as much as 80% of the derivatives could be understood. Other investigations focusing on the frequency of certain affixes (e.g. Becker, Dixon & Andersson-Inman, 1980; Harwood & Wright, 1956) generally show that a small number of affixes are indeed very frequent and make up a very large percentage of all affix use. …

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