Lexical frequency clearly plays a role in shaping the developing grammar, as frequent forms are acquired earlier and processed more easily than infrequent forms (Ellis 2012, Lieven 2010). Nevertheless, little is known about how frequency affects morphosyntactic variation during acquisition. This study examines the influence of frequency of verb forms on subject pronoun expression (e.g. yo canto ~ canto) in sociolinguistic interviews conducted with 12 second language learners of Spanish. Analyses of 980 verb forms indicate that frequency effects are dependent on L2 proficiency. During earlier stages of acquisition, frequency has a direct impact on pronoun expression: learners express pronouns more often with frequent than with infrequent verbs. This finding suggests that, in the face of the heavier cognitive burden presented by infrequent forms, learners with lower levels of proficiency tend to omit linguistic material. During more advanced stages of acquisition, however, frequency plays a more complex role: it activates or amplifies other linguistic variables that influence pronoun expression, such as switch-reference. This mediating role of frequency is similar to what has been found for native speakers of Spanish (Erker & Guy 2012), indicating that the advanced learners in the study produce target-like pronoun expression patterns. In summary, the study shows that lexical frequency influences variable morphosyntax during second language acquisition, and that its role is increasingly complex as learners become more proficient.
Selected Proceedings of the 16th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium
edited by Jennifer Cabrelli Amaro, Gillian Lord, Ana de Prada Pérez, and Jessi Elana Aaron
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