Chapter 7. Studying Receptive Grammar Acquisition within a PT Framework

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This paper deals with the applicability of Processability Theory to receptive grammar acquisition. To date, PT has been defined and investigated as a theory of oral language production – based on the psycholinguistic mechanisms that form the basis of the theory. The receptive side of grammar acquisition has received scant attention – in spite of the relevance of such an undertaking for our understanding of (developmental stages in) L2 grammar acquisition. The present paper presents an exploratory study on the applicability of PT to receptive grammar acquisition. Given the relative novelty of this undertaking, considerable attention will be given to the theoretical and methodological issues that arise in exploring this direction in Processability research – in particular those that follow from the concepts of feature unification and emergence, which are central to PT. Subsequently, an exploratory study on the receptive acquisition of English morphology among adult learners of English as a second language (ESL) is conducted. For this study, a self-paced reading task was used to look at learners’ online receptive processing skills of (stage 2, category procedure) genitive -s and past tense -ed, (stage 3, phrasal agreement) plural -s agreement, (stage 4, VP agreement) have + past participle agreement and be + -ing form agreement, and (stage 5, S-procedure) subject-verb agreement 3SGs-s. The self-paced reading task compared learners’ reaction times when processing grammatical sentence segments to their reaction time when processing ungrammatical sentence segments. A significant delay in reaction time when processing ungrammatical items was considered evidence that learners were able to process the targeted morphological phenomenon. Group results and implicational scaling results of the self-paced reading task did not chime with PT. This would suggest that receptive and productive grammar acquisition are independent processes that are (partially) governed by different mechanisms and hence result in different developmental patterns. This conclusion, however, is only a tentative one at this stage. Some methodological issues that may have affected the data are discussed.


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