Harald Clahsen Generative second language acquisition

Professor of Psycholinguistics and Multilingualism, University of Potsdam; Director, Potsdam Research Institute of Multilingualism (PRIM)


Psycholinguistics; first and second language acquisition, developmental and acquired language disorders, the experimental study of language processing in different languages.

"Beyond tree diagrams: Insights from the experimental study of child L1 and adult L2 processing"

In language-acquisition research, the comparative study of child L1 and adult L2 learners has quite a long tradition. Researchers ask, for example, why success in L1 acquisition of grammar is almost guaranteed, whereas for adult late bilinguals native-like acquisition of an L2 grammar is a rare exception. One attempt to account for this difference is the idea that child language acquisition relies on a specialized device (viz. Universal Grammar) to acquire grammatical properties of individual languages and that this learning device for grammar building is not or not fully available to adults. Instead, late bilinguals have to rely more on general learning mechanisms to learn a second language. If this is correct, the comparative investigation of L1 and L2 acquisition provides a window for the systematic study of the properties of different learning and cognitive systems. 

In this talk I will extend the comparative study of child L1 and adult L2 learners to the domain of grammatical processing, focusing on experimental studies of morphology. Efficient language processing requires the system to rapidly integrate information about language structure (e.g. grammar) with information from other sources during reading or listening. For the present talk, I will report results from graded linguistic judgments and from eye-movement experiments examining the role of morphological constraints relative to semantic and lexical cues in child L1 vs. adult L2 learners' spoken language comprehension. Our results revealed clear between-group contrasts. Whilst children rely more upon structural properties of language (in the present case, morphological cues) during comprehension, adult learners show earlier sensitivity to non-structural (semantic and lexical) cues. Again, the comparative investigation of L1 and L2 learners provides insight into different cognitive systems, in this case different pathways of language processing.

Generative second language acquisition is hosted by the , University of Greenwich.