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Contemporary Perspectives on the Acquisition of Spanish
edited by Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux and William R. Glass
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Introduction: Research on the Acquisition of Spanish
by Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux and William R. Glass

The two volumes which comprise Contemporary Perspectives on the Acquisition of Spanish evolved from the Penn State Conference on the Acquisition of Spanish which took place in October 1995. At that time, we felt that while research on the acquisition of English, French, and German had rightfully received considerable attention, Spanish had not been sufficiently studied. We were convinced this was an opportune time to create a forum which would bring together researchers from different disciplines working on the acquisition of Spanish.

As a pro-drop and clitic language, Spanish provides an exciting empirical ground for acquisition research. To illustrate, within principles and parameters research, one of the best studied parameters in acquisition is the null subject, or pro-drop, parameter. However, the adult acquisition of a non-null subject language (e.g., English) by learners from a null subject native background (e.g., Spanish) has been dealt with in hundreds of studies, while the bibliography on parameter resetting in the opposite direction is limited to little more than two dozen articles. The reason for the difference is demographic, but the trends are changing, with a consequent enrichment in empirical perspectives.

Assessments of research on Child Spanish (L1) during the 1980s commented on the paucity of data sources available to researchers (Clark 1985, López-Ornat 1988). In truth, with some notable exceptions (Hernández-Pina 1984), the few studies available were either of a very general nature, or were limited to a single grammatical phenomenon. The accumulation of data was insufficient to enable a comprehensive characterization of developmental sequences. In this context, one of the important contributions of Volume 1 is the utilization of some of the new sources of spontaneous production data in Child Spanish. For example, the Austin et al. paper uses data from the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab Natural Speech Corpus. López-Ornat's longitudinal data are extracted from the corpus of the child María, which has recently been made available through CHILDES (MacWhinney 1991). Finally, the data in Ezeizabarrena's and Barreña's studies originate from a new corpus generated by the HEGEHJ-BUSDE joint project of the Universidad del País Vasco and the University of Hamburg.

The sections on second language (L2) acquisition in both volumes also offer important methodological and empirical contributions to the dialogue on the acquisition of Spanish. In particular, some chapters extend the empirical scope of research in the field. The chapter by Liceras et al. analyzes for the first time naturalistic data from the earliest stage in adult L2 development. The chapters by Pérez-Leroux and Glass and by Montrul are among the first to study L2 acquisition of aspects of the syntax-semantics interface. Sanz looks specifically at the relationship between research task and variability in L2 production, examining both the mode and the amount of production. Houston unifies research perspectives on second language reading and input processing in his study on the effects of external knowledge sources on sentential processing. The chapter by Lee and Rodríguez extends the study of L2 processing from oral to written input while also contributing to the discussion on L2 comprehension.

Fifteen years ago researchers' beliefs about children's language development were determined primarily by their views on language (Elliot 1981). In other words, theories of language acquisition were subordinate to the different approaches to the study of language. Today the relationship between linguistic theory and acquisition data has shifted. The question of how languages are acquired is considered by many to be the central question of linguistic theory (Chomsky and Lasnik 1993, Bloom 1994). Not only are acquisition data an important test for the predictions of a given theory, but theories of language are also evaluated on the basis of their potential for explaining language acquisition.

Why has the study of language acquisition come to the forefront of linguistic theory? The study of first and second language acquisition evolved separately, the former as a sub-field of developmental psychology, the latter under the auspices of language pedagogy. Today, these areas fall within a broader research agenda that investigates the question of what is similar in adult and child language learning processes and why. These two volumes, like acquisition research in general, do not constitute a single, unified body of work devoted to answering this question. Instead, various disciplinary and theoretical approaches to acquisition are represented here as they apply to Spanish.

Linguists, psychologists, and caregivers wonder at the ease with which young children learn their mother tongue. By the end of their second year of life, children have the phonological system of their language in place. By a gradual process the lexical, morphological, and syntactic system of the target language is built, and by the time children reach elementary school they possess a grammatical system as sophisticated as that of their parents. In the process of acquiring language, children do not blindly imitate their parents' language. Instead, they appear to follow their own internal grammar. The following dialogue between Rafael, aged 30 months, and his mother illustrates this independence from explicit feedback.

      madre:   ¿Cómo se dice? 'Yo he escrito.'
      Rafael:  Yo ha scribido
      madre:   No hombre, se dice 'Yo he escrito.'
      Rafael:  No. Yo ha'cribido
               [ . . . ]
      Rafael:  No, papá ya ha cribido. Papá ha escrito. Yo 
               ha cribido. Yo no he escrito, he ascribido.
      madre:   ¡No hombre! No se dice 'ascribido.'
      Rafael:  Sí se dice 'he ascribido.'
      madre:   ¡Ah!, bueno, pues sí.
      (Hernández-Pina 1984: 288)

Clearly, Rafael's knowledge of the grammatical structure of Spanish is at odds with his mother's. Children follow precise developmental steps in their acquisition of the morphology (López-Ornat Volume 1), and the syntax (Ezeizabarrena Volume 1).

What is the nature of children's knowlege of language? What mechanisms guide and constrain this process? Traditionally, acquisition research has been defined by the tension between the nativist and the empiricist paradigms, which in recent years has shifted to a debate between generativist and connectionist models (Plunkett 1995). Both positions are represented in the works in Volume 1, although most chapters assume the parameter setting model advocated by generative grammar. According to this theory, differences between the various human languages are defined by a small set of parametric decisions (Chomsky 1981, Hyams 1986, Meisel 1995). The learner is believed to possess knowledge of all the universal properties of language (the principles), and language acquisition is considered a process of finding which setting of the parameters correspond to the target language. The study of early syntax often reveals that children have early knowledge of the parametric options of their parents' language, in particular in the case of the pro-drop parameter (Valian 1991, Austin et al. Volume 1).

In bilingual acquisition the fundamental question is how children manage the simultaneous learning of parametric differences in their two languages (Meisel 1994, Barreña Volume 1, Gathercole and Montes Volume 1).

In the area of adult grammatical development, the primary research question regards the possibility of learning new parameter settings in adulthood. Two important research paradigms in the field have proved fruitful. The first of these paradigms considers the notion that grammatical knowledge of the second language is initially mediated by the native language in adult learners. To test this view, some studies examine the structure of the initial stages in L2 acquisition (Liceras et al. Volume 1). Others compare developmental patterns in adult and child acquisition (Schwartz 1992, González Volume 1). The second paradigm aims to show that reliance on (or 'access to') grammatical knowledge based on Universal Grammar is present in adult grammatical acquisition (Flynn 1987, Flynn and O'Neil 1988, White 1989). This research is often approached using the strategy of identifying aspects of the grammar that are untaught (or taught in a misleading fashion) and then testing adult learners' knowledge of such aspects of the grammar (Pérez-Leroux and Glass Volume 1, Montrul Volume 1, Bruhn de Garavito Volume 1).

Second language development is studied via learners' language production and comprehension. However, several researchers have been intrigued by the role of production and comprehension in the acquisition process itself, issues explored at greater length in Volume 2. For example, questions which have been raised during the last 15 years include: does output play a role in the internalization of a developing grammatical system, and what is the role of input processing in acquisition and what do learners attend to in the stream of input data?

In the last two decades, researchers have come to view language production (output) as something more than just the by-product of acquisition. Indeed, many have argued for its recognition as a contributing variable in the acquisition process itself. This has been perhaps most evident in Swain's well-known publication which, in response to the tremendous attention that "comprehensible input" was receiving in the literature, suggested a role for "comprehensible output" (Swain 1985). As Swain argued, production may move learners from semantic processing to syntactic processing, ultimately resulting in a more native-like grammar. A role for output has also been seen in the writings of researchers working within Vygotskyan frameworks (Lantolf Volume 2) and their investigation of learners' private language play. In fact, Vygotskyan theory as applied to second language development has garnered increased attention in recent years. According to this perspective, the self-directed private speech that a learner engages in has a central role in language development.

Language production research also examines learners' phonetic ability and their pronunciation (González-Bueno Volume 2, Reeder Volume 2). Specifically, variables affecting the acquisition of a target language's phonetic system such as formal instruction and learners' ability to mimic non-L1 sounds have piqued the curiosity of some researchers.

Despite the growing interest in output and language production in recent years, perhaps nothing has captivated the second language dialogue as much as the attention placed on the role of input and interaction. Tracing its contemporary origins to the late 1960s when Corder (1967) first distinguished input from intake (i.e., a subset of input data which is "taken in" by the learner), (comprehensible) input has become a central component in various acquisition theories (Long 1983, Krashen 1985, Ellis 1993, VanPatten and Cadierno 1993) and has even been the focus of an entire volume of acquisition research (Gass and Madden 1985). While approaches favoring the primacy of input are somewhat at odds with theories that emphasize the innateness of language (e.g., Universal Grammar), they are not completely incompatible (VanPatten Volume 2). Moreover, while many researchers concur that input plays a significant role in acquisition, questions regarding the processing of input remain to be answered. That is to say, it is not fully understood which features in a stream of input data receive the learners' attention and why, thus encouraging investigations along these lines (Barcroft and VanPatten Volume 2).

This two volume set is divided into four major sections. Volume 1 is devoted to the acquisition of syntax by both children and adults. The first section of Volume 1 presents research on the grammar of child Spanish in both monolingual and multilingual settings (chapters by López-Ornat, Ezeizabarrena, Austin et al., Barreña, and Gathercole and Montes). The second section of Volume 1 investigates the nature of developing grammars from a second language perspective, with attention to the roles of the first language and of universal principles (chapters by Liceras et al., González, Pérez-Leroux and Glass, Bruhn de Garavito, and Montrul).

Volume 2 is devoted to issues of production, processing, and comprehension by non-native speakers of Spanish. The first section of Volume 2 examines L2 production, looking both at oral and written language (chapters by Lantolf, Collentine, Sanz, González-Bueno, and Reeder). The second section of Volume 2 investigates issues related to L2 processing and comprehension of written and oral input (chapters by VanPatten, Barcroft and VanPatten, Houston, and Lee and Rodríguez).


Bloom, Paul. 1994. Language acquisition: core readings. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Chomsky, Noam and Howard Lasnik. 1993. Principles and parameters theory. Syntax: an international handbook of contemporary research, ed. J. Jacobs, A. vonStechow, W. Sternefeld and T. Venneman. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Clark, Eve. 1985. The acquisition of Romance. The crosslinguistic study of language acquisition, ed. D. Slobin, 687-782. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Corder, Steven P. 1967. The significance of learners' errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics 5: 161-170.

Elliot, Alison. 1981. Child language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, Rod. 1993. The structural syllabus and second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly 27: 91-113.

Flynn, Suzanne. 1987. A parameter-setting model of L2 acquisition. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Flynn, Suzanne and Wayne O'Neil, eds. 1988. Linguistic theory and second language acquisition. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Gass, Susan and Carolyn Madden, eds. 1985. Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Hernández-Pina, Fuensanta. 1984. Teorías psicolingüísticas y su aplicación a la adquisición del español como lengua materna. Madrid: Siglo XXI.

Hyams, Nina. 1986. Language acquisition and the theory of parameters. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Krashen, Stephen. 1985. The input hypothesis: issues and implications. New York: Longman.

Long, Michael. 1983. Linguistic and conversational adjustments to non-native speakers. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 5: 177-193.

López-Ornat, Susana. 1988. On data sources on the acquisition of Spanish as a first language. Journal of Child Language 15: 679-686.

MacWhinney, Brian. 1991. The CHILDES project: tools for analyzing talk. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Meisel, Jürgen, ed. 1994. Bilingual first language acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Meisel, Jürgen. 1995. Parameters in acquisition. The handbook of child language, ed. P. Fletcher and B. MacWhinney, 10-35. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Plunkett, Kim. 1995. Connectionism and language acquisition. The handbook of child language, ed. P. Fletcher and B. MacWhinney, 36-72. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Schwartz, Bonnie. 1992. Testing between UG based and problem solving models of L2A: developmental sequence data. Language Acquisition 2: 1-20.

Swain, Merrill. 1985. Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. Input in second language acquisition, ed. S. Gass and C. Madden, 235-253. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Valian, Virginia. 1991. Syntactic subjects in the early speech of American and Italian children. Cognition 40: 21-81.

VanPatten, Bill and Teresa Cadierno. 1993. Explicit instruction and input processing. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15: 225-244.

White, Lydia. 1989. Universal grammar and second language acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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