Universal Grammar and Focus constraints: the acquisition of pronouns and word order in non-native Spanish
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Second language acquisitionSyntax-discourse interfacePronounsWord orderUniversal grammarGramática universalAdquisición del españolL2 SpanishSyntaxELE
SponsorshipESRC (Economic and Social Research Countil), UK / Reino Unido
A recent controversy in second language acquisition research concerns the extent to which adult non-native intuitions differ from adult native intuitions at advanced and near-native levels of competence (end-states). Two (apparently) contradictory findings pervade the L2 literature: while some studies reveal that learners can indeed achieve native-like intuitions, other findings show that they display near-native and optional intuitions. In short, there is a debate about whether adult non-native interlanguage grammars converge with (or diverge from) adult native grammars. The first type of studies (convergence) focuses on constructions that are claimed to be part of the innate principles of Universal Grammar (UG), which typically represent a poverty-of-the-stimulus (POS) phenomenon. The second type (divergence) normally focuses on parameterisable functional features where the L1 and L2 values differ. In this study I test whether this is the expected trend in advanced non-native Spanish acquisition, i.e., that learners show convergent knowledge where UG principles are involved, but divergent knowledge where parametric values differ between the native and the target language. In particular, I investigate the distribution of overt and null pronominal subjects in Spanish, which is constrained by a principle of UG, the Overt Pronoun Constraint (OPC), and by a language-specific constraint, the Contrastive Focus Constraint (CFC). Similarly, the distribution of Subject-Verb (SV) and Verb-Subject (VS) word order is constrained by two principles of UG, namely, the Unaccusative Hypothesis (UH) and the Uniformity of Theta Assignment Hypothesis (UTAH), and by a language-specific constraint, presentational focus. Results from two experiments (pronominal distribution and word order distribution) reveal that English learners of L2 Spanish and Greek learners of L3 Spanish show convergent (native-like) intuitions with respect to the principles of UG (OPC and UH/UTAH), while showing divergent (near-native and optional) intuitions in cases where the strength of the parameterisable focus head differs between their L1 and their L2/L3 Spanish (contrastive and presentational focus environments).