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Acquisition of English Verb Transitivity by Native Speakers of Japanese
Tomonori Nagano
1-18 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


This study concerns the acquisition of the causative alternation of English verbs (e.g., Tony broke the window ↔ The window broke) by native speakers of Japanese. First, I will present a short survey of the causative alternation in English and Japanese. The survey shows that morphological marking for transitivity is arbitrary in both languages but in different ways; English lacks causative morphological markers (labile) whereas Japanese employs both causative and anticausative morphemes (equipollent) (Nedjalkov, 1969; Haspelmath, 1993). From a semantic perspective, the causative alternation in English is constrained by certain semantic principles (Levin, 1993; Pinker, 1989), such that change-of-state and manner-of-motion verbs typically participate in the causative alternation, but verbs of disappearance and inherently-directed motion do not. In Japanese, however, the constraints on the latter two verb classes do not exist. This difference results in a subset-superset relationship in lexical causativity between English and Japanese, which earlier studies on L2 argument structure alternation suggest to be a problem for the L2 learners (Bley-Vroman & Yoshinaga, 1992; Inagaki, 1997, 2001; Hirakawa & Suzuki, 2010; Montrul, 2001a). The subset-superset relationship, which I call the asymmetric relationship in SLA in this paper, predicts learnability difficulty when the usage of a certain grammatical construction in the learner's first language constitutes a superset of the usage in the target language (but not when it constitutes a subset). One of the goals of this paper is to investigate this hypothesis in the acquisition of the causative alternation in English by Japanese speakers. In addition, recent studies in the L1 acquisition of the causative construction (Ambridge et al., 2008) argue that frequency influences the acquisition process of the argument alternation. A second goal is to test this claim about frequency effects. In a computer-based experiment, 26 native English speakers and 35 Japanese native speakers learning English were tested with a grammaticality judgment task on English causative/intransitive sentences. The results largely support the predictions made by the asymmetric relationship but also suggest the influence of external factors such as frequency.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 2011 Second Language Research Forum: Converging Theory and Practice
edited by Erik Voss, Shu-Ju Diana Tai, and Zhi Li
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Printed edition: $280.00