Alternation phenomena in EFL learners


Alternation phenomena in EFL learners: Probabilistic Grammar meets Usage-based approaches to Second Language Acquisition

The project aims to offer a theory-based account of how foreign language learners come to master linguistic alternations. In alternation phenomena, speakers have at their availability several linguistic structures to communicate one same message, because these so-called alternants have the exact same meaning in certain contexts (e.g. the genitive alternation: the dog’s tail/the tail of the dog). In such contexts, speakers’ choice of alternant is not random but depends on several interacting factors. At present, a large body of literature has researched the factors that guide the use of alternations by (English) native speakers, but it is still unclear how alternation phenomena and their contributing factors are mastered by adults learning a foreign language. To address this gap, the project combines the framework of Probabilistic Grammar (Bresnan 2007) with insights from Usage-based approaches to Second Language Acquisition (e.g. Wulff & Ellis 2018). Within this integrated framework, I discuss the development of the probabilistic grammar of learners of English as a Foreign language (EFL) for two types of alternation: the positional genitive alternation (see example above) and the nonpositional future marker alternation (he will read the paper tomorrow/he is going to read the paper tomorrow). I analyze two complementary types of data. First, I make use of the Trinity Lancaster Corpus (Gablasova et al. 2019), from which I derive multifactorial classification models for both alternations. Additionally, I conduct rating task experiments to be administered to native speakers and EFL learners. By virtue of the integrated theoretical framework and the mixed methodological approach I adopt, the project not only offers a comprehensive account of the acquisition of alternation phenomena in EFL learners specifically; it also provides a theory-based starting point to discuss the acquisition of probabilistic aspects of grammar for language learners at large.

This project is funded by the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (F.R.S.-FNRS).

Supervisor(s): Magali Paquot and Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (KU Leuven)
PhD candidate: Tanguy Dubois


Bresnan, Joan. 2007. Is syntactic knowledge probabilistic? Experiments with the English dative alternation. In Sam Featherson & Wolfgang Sternefeld (eds.) Roots: Linguistics in Search of Its Evidential Base. Series: Studies in Generative Grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 77-96.
Gablasova, Dana, Vaclav Brezina & Tony McEnery. 2019. The Trinity Lancaster Corpus: Development, description and application. International Journal of Learner Corpus Research 5(2). 126–158.
Wulff, Stefanie & Nick C. Ellis. 2018. Usage-based approaches to second language acquisition. In David Miller, Fatih Bayram, Jason Rothman & Ludovica Serratrice (eds.). Bilingual Cognition and Language: The state of the science across its subfields. John Benjamins. 37-56.