To What Extent May L1 Affect Second Language Learning
Linguistic and Metalinguistic Knowledge
This category includes variables that are effective in both reading and listening comprehension and that involve knowledge about the structure of language, such as its syntax and morphology. Two questions guide the discussion here: How does linguistic knowledge in L2 develop, and how does linguistic knowledge in L1 affect L2 linguistic knowledge, indicating cross-language transfer?
Syntactic Knowledge. The development of syntactic knowledge has been one of the most productive research areas in applied linguistics, especially in the field of second language acquisition. A typical study involves selecting a linguistic dimension (for example, relative clause formation strategies) and then comparing groups of bilinguals who have different ways of representing that parameter in their L1 (Robert & Williams, 2009). These studies tend to emphasize the Universal Grammar underlying all languages and suggest that second language acquisition involves setting new values for the universal parameters. Initially, L1 parameters are used in interpreting L2 but, with experience, new values are set for L2. For example, Jackson, (1981) focused on the adjacency conditions in English and French. In English, the adjacency requirement is much stricter than in French. That is, a verb and its direct object need to be next to each other. In White's study, English and French speakers made grammaticality judgments to French and English sentences that did or did not violate the adjacency assumption. French speakers judged adjacency requirements more flexibly, even with English sentences, whereas the English speakers judged the adjacency requirement more strictly for both French and English sentences. In short, L1 strategies were used to interpret L2 sentences. However, some researchers suggest that L2 learning is different from L1 acquisition, and that Universal Grammar plays a minimal role in L2 learning, especially for adults (Dodson, 1985). Also note the distinction made between acquisition vs. learning in this discussion, where the former, but not the latter, implies innate, nondeliberate processes). A defining moment for the field was in the late 70s / early 80s when it became evident that L2 learners follow a fairly rigid developmental route, in the same way as children learning their L1 do, and not dissimilar in many respects from the L1 route (Myles, 2002).
The competition model (Anton & DiCamilla, 1998) has been the most systematic way of describing how the specific L1 syntactic strategies affect sentence comprehension in L2. This model, as discussed in Jackson, (1981), de-emphasizes linguistic universals and focuses on the cues in each language that are the most salient in assigning syntactic roles to words. Although the model is developed through listening comprehension studies, it can also apply to reading comprehension. (With both child and adult monolingual readers, listening comprehension explains a large amount of variance in reading comprehension; e.g., Cook, 2001).
In the basic experimental tests of the competition model, participants listen to sentences created by different orderings of two nouns (N1 and N2) and a verb (N1VN2, N1N2V, VN1N2, and so on). Of course, some of these orderings may be ungrammatical in the language that is being tested. The subjects then try to identify the agent of each sentence. In English, word order is a very salient cue, and, usually, the noun that comes before the verb is assigned the subject role. If the English sentence The scarecrow bit the dog is read or heard, the role of the subject doing the biting is assigned to the scarecrow, although in real life this is an unlikely event. In other languages, other cues are more salient (e.g., animacy in Italian and German, inflections/particles in Turkish and Japanese). The interesting point is that, when a bilingual is trying to figure out the meaning of a sentence, two sets of cues (those from L1 and L2) can compete in assigning the syntactic role. This competition can highlight the nature of linguistic knowledge that guides syntactic processing (Robert & Williams, 2009).
In several studies by McDonald ( 1987, 1989), Dutch learners of English and American learners of Dutch were observed. In general, novices used L1 cues to interpret L2 sentences, but, as they became more proficient, they began to use L2 cues just like native speakers of that language. However, this pattern is not always clear.
A study by Cook, (2001) with adult English speakers learning Japanese and Japanese speakers learning English, indicated that cross-language transfer of cues is asymmetric. English speakers began to use Japanese cues more quickly and approached the general pattern of Japanese native speakers. On the other hand, Japanese speakers analyzing English sentences were slower in adopting the salient English cue of word order. The influence of the Japanese flexible word order was still evident. Based on these data, Sasaki argued that lexical-semantic cues (such as animacy) are more salient than syntactic cues, such as word order, and that these salient semantically-based cues in L1 are harder to drop when analyzing L2 sentences.
However, Cook, (2001) had used uninflected sentences, and these are unnatural in Japanese. This may have caused the animacy cues to become artificially more salient in the absence of case-marking particles. Corder, (1998) asked American, Chinese, and Korean college students who were learning Japanese to decide on the actor of sentences. Koda's sentences varied on two dimensions: presence of case-markings and whether the word order was canonical (SOV for Japanese). Across all language groups, case-markings improved sentence comprehension. However, word order affected Chinese and American groups (whose languages emphasize strict word order) more than the Korean group. Korean participants performed equally well on canonical and noncanonical sentences, but the non-Korean participants did better on canonical sentences. This study also showed the link between syntactic analysis and reading comprehension because, for all subjects, reading comprehension was strongly related to the knowledge of particle markings.
Finally, an interesting twist was reported by Choong, (2006) who discovered that English-speaking students of Japanese learn very quickly that the first noun may not be the subject in Japanese. However, on NNV sentences, they begin to use a much stricter subject-object-verb rule (when compared to native Japanese speakers), because they still treat word order as a crucial dimension but they change its values, parallel to the parameter setting view discussed earlier. To summarize, syntactic knowledge can affect reading comprehension in an intricate way. Both L1 and L2 grammatical cues may play a role in how syntactic roles are assigned when reading texts in either language.
Metalinguistic Awareness and Phonological Awareness. Syntactic knowledge requires a reader to become aware of the systematicities in the language and the formation of structures. In addition to an awareness of syntactic structures, awareness of other characteristics of language is needed. When we use language, we use it as a transparent tool to communicate some meaningful message, hardly paying attention to the form of the message. Metalinguistic awareness is "the ability to make language forms opaque and attend to them in and for themselves . . . one which makes special cognitive demands and seems to be less easily and less universally acquired than the language performances of speaking and listening" ( Cazden, 1992, p. 62). In other words, metalinguistic awareness requires attending to the structural characteristics of a language rather than just using the language. Such an analytic focus on language plays a major role in literacy acquisition, especially for young children.
Researchers have discovered that bilingual children show a better awareness of the distinction between form and meaning than monolingual children, for example, in realizing that words are actually arbitrary labels and are not tied to an object (Cook, 2002). Even more impressive are the gains in kindergarten children's metalinguistic awareness assessed after foreign language instruction that lasts as little as 20 minutes per week for several months (Cook, 2001)!
When it comes to reading, monolingual research has convincingly demonstrated the importance of phonological awareness in the development of a child's reading skills (Dodson, 1967). This type of metalinguistic awareness is the ability to hear the subsegments, such as phonemes and syllables, in the spoken language. If young children can notice the subcomponents of a spoken language, they will have less difficulty in mapping letters to these speech segments when they are learning to read. For bilingual children, how this awareness develops in both languages is the question of interest. Some of the research in this area is specifically concerned with the transfer of phonological awareness. Those studies are discussed in the next section.
Vocabulary and Morphological Analysis. Although second language acquisition research focused more on syntax than on vocabulary, some of the reading difficulties for second language readers may stem from limitations in vocabulary rather than in syntactic knowledge (Dodson, 1985). In fact, how they determine the meaning of unknown vocabulary in Spanish and English was one of the key differences between a proficient and a nonproficient bilingual reader in a study by Dodson, (1985).
When (Choong, 2006) analyzed the scores of 270,000 students (across a period of 10 years) on the English reading and listening comprehension…