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Tense And Aspect In Itu Mbon Uso

ABSTRACT

In the last two decades researchers in L2 acquisition research have tested a number of hypotheses that make well defined predictions about the developmental processes involved in L2 acquisition of tense-aspect morphology. Such hypotheses include the Lexical Aspect Hypothesis and the Cognitive Saliency Hypothesis. Lexical Aspect Hypothesis predicts that the lexical semantics of the verbal predicates determines the pattern of acquisition of verbal morphology at the early stages of interlanguage development (Andersen and Shirai 1995; Ayoun and Salaberry 2008; Bardovi-Harlig 2000) while the Cognitive Saliency Hypothesis predicts that the perceptual saliency of the verbal predicates determines the pattern of acquisition of verbal morphology (Salaberry 2000; Hawkins and Lizska 2003). Our aim was to test the joint effects of these two hypotheses in the interlanguage of Ibibio learners of English as a second language (ESL). Ibibio is a language spoken in the southeastern part of Nigeria by about five million speakers. We argue that two distinct but related cognitive processes are involved in the development of inflectional endings in a second language: the lexical-based learning which is operative at the lower levels of proficiency and the rule-based learning which is operative at the higher levels of proficiency. We elicited written narratives from 171 participants organized into six groups sampled from the primary schools, the secondary schools and the universities using three sets of picture stories

with each set for each level of education. The participants were asked to narrate the stories depicted in the pictures stories. The results of the data analyses showed that lexical aspect had highly significant effects on acquisition of the past tense-aspect morphology with a chi-square statistics of (x2 = 196.92, df = 6, N = 1664, p = <.0001) indicating a strong dependency of acquisition of the past tense morphology on lexical aspect. Also, there was significant effects of lexical saliency on acquisition of the past tense with a chi-square statistics of (x2 = 23.54, df = 2, N = 1664, p = <.0001) indicating a strong dependency of acquisition of the past tense on lexical saliency. However, the effect of lexical aspect was more prominent among the learners at the higher levels of proficiency while the reverse was the case for the effects of lexical saliency. Positive effects of instruction and effects of L1 were also reported.

CHAPTER ONE INTRODUCTION

1.1   Introduction

The main purpose of this study is to investigate the extent to which the expression of temporality through inflectional morphology by second language learners is determined or influenced by lexical semantics and or lexical saliency of the verbs. Such investigation is situated at the interface between syntax and semantics as it concerns second language acquisition of tense- aspect morphology by ESL learners who are speakers of Ibibio; a Lower Cross language spoken in southeastern part of Nigeria. To achieve this purpose, we discuss the following preliminary issues in this chapter: the research background, a statement of research problem, a discussion of the major objectives of the study, the significance of the study, the research questions and the proposed ways that the study will address the questions. Also necessary in this chapter are background issues on Ibibio1 people and their language and a discussion of the aspects of linguistic time2 in this language including the tense-aspect system. Also important is a discussion of some aspects of the English language as it is domesticated in Nigerian context resulting in the Standard Nigerian English; the variety of English that is taught in schools and used in the research area; the type that participants in this study are exposed to. Finally, this chapter will include a discussion of the general organization of the study.

1 Ibibio is the name of a people and language spoken in southeastern Nigeria (Akwa Ibom State) by about 5 million people. Ibibio people who learn English as a second language will be referred to as Itu mbon uso and this group constitutes the research subject in this study.

2 This term has been used by other researchers including Ayoun and Salaberry 2008 and it means the combination of tense, grammatical aspect and lexical aspect in and language.

 

1.2  Research Background

 

A major challenge confronting all language learners, including learners in first language acquisition, second language acquisition and foreign language acquisition situations, is the discovery of the link between form and function in language (though such discovery is always intuitive) (Weist 2002 etc.). This challenge seems to be general to all learners though specific manifestations of the problem may differ according to the specific learning conditions of the learners, the age of the learners, the L1-L2 combination of the learners, the level of proficiency, the amount of instructions and contents of the instructional material to which the learners are exposed among other factors. The Ibibio learners of English as a second language (ESL) in a classroom situation also face this challenge but in unique ways based on the peculiarities of their learning condition like the L1-L2 combination and the other factors mentioned above. One of the concerns of this study is to discover, describe and explain how Ibibio learners of ESL go about the process of uncovering the link between morphological forms and the functional concept of temporality3.

The relationship between form and function has been the concern of linguists at all levels and from all persuasions since the early days of Saussure and his colleagues. That is, linguists working at all levels of linguistic analysis and using all models of analysis have been confronted by the need to describe and explain this relationship. In the past two decades the relationship between form and function as it concerns L2 acquisition of temporal-aspectual features has been studied in several ways and two major strands of studies have emerged from these studies. One

of the strands has its focus on the morphological elements or markings that L2 learners employ

3 I will use the term “temporality” in synonymy with the term “time reference” which is the embodiment of all the devices that learners use to show the relationship between the situation time and the moment of speech or speech time. This is different from “Tense” which I will use to refer to the actual morphological markings on verbs to signal the relationship between situation time and speech time.

 

in their attempt to acquire temporal distinctions in their L2 (form-oriented approach or form-to- function studies). This approach identifies a form in the interlanguage and traces its distribution thereby determining its function in the interlanguage system (Long & Sato 1984, Sato 1990, Berretta 1995, etc.). The other strand of research is the concept-oriented approach which examines the range of linguistic devices used by learners to encode temporality in their interlanguage. This approach attempts to answer such questions as how do learners express temporality at a given stage of their acquisition process, how does temporal reference change over time (i.e. what developmental patterns emerge over the span of the acquisition process), and what are the explanatory factors that can account for the development from one stage to another up till when the target-like usage is acquired. The findings show that first the learner uses the pragmatic means to express temporality. This is followed by the lexical means and finally the learner can use the morphological means (von Stutterheim & Klein 1987, Dietrich et al. 1995). The form-to-function approach has various sub-strands of studies based on what the analyst considers to be the trigger element for L2 learners. Is it the lexical semantics of the verbs (Aspect Hypothesis; Ayuon & Salaberry 2008, Andersen 1986, 1991, 1994, Andersen & Shirai 1994, Housen 2002, Collins 2002, Bardovi-Harlig 1992a, 1994, 2000)? Or is it the perceptual saliency of the verbal morphology (Cognitive Saliency Hypothesis; Hawkins & Lizska 2003, Klein et al. 1995, Rohde 2002, Wolfram 1985)? Or is it the discourse features of the verbs (Discourse Hypothesis; Flashner 1989, Dry 1981, 1983, 1992; Reinhart 1984, Labov 1972, Hopper & Thompson (1980)? This study uses the cognitive assumptions enshrined in Aspect Hypothesis (henceforth AH) in conjunction with Cognitive Saliency Hypothesis (henceforth CSH), all of them sub-strands of form-oriented studies, to attempt an empirical analysis of the second language production data collected from Itu mbon uso in the classroom situations. This appears, to the best of my knowledge, to be the first time that AH in conjunction with CSH has ever been applied in the analysis of L2 production data from ESL learners with African L1. This warrants the statement of the research problem in the following section.

 

1.3  Statement of the Research Problem

 

All approaches to the study of L2 acquisition of tense-aspect morphology seek to capture, analyze and explain the commonalities that can be ascribed to either the L2 learners themselves or the process of L2 tense-aspect acquisition. For example, studies using the concept-oriented approach (Bardovi-Harlig 2000, 1994, 1992c; Klein 1995; Salsbury 1997 etc.) seek to explicate the common pathways that all L2 learners must follow in the course of their acquisition of temporality. These pathways include the pragmatic means, the lexical means and the morphological means as stated earlier. Studies following form-oriented approach using the AH and CSH sub-strands (Ayoun and Salaberry 2008; Salaberry 2000; Shirai 2007, Andersen 1991) seek to explicate the universal effects of lexical aspectual classes and/or the lexical saliency of the verbs on the pattern of acquisition of tense-aspect verbal morphology. These effects are assumed to be independent of the differences in L1 background of the L2 learners and this assumption will be tested with the production data in subsequent chapters.

However, this nagging need to capture and explain the commonalities or the universals cannot evolve into empirically supported and generally accepted theoretical generalizations if we only concentrate efforts on the study of acquisition of European languages by Europeans and other learners whose L1 and L2 may share certain degree of linguistic similarities. We need to study the pattern of acquisition of European languages (including English) by speakers of African

 

languages and other languages which are typologically4 different from European languages and Asian languages (Upor 2009). Although such studies have the potential to strengthen generalizability of research results, they have been scanty and are non-existent in some cases. Also, the need to build strong theoretical bases in all areas of SLA research, including research into acquisition of tense-aspect morphology, is ever increasing and this calls for expansion of the research tentacles to cover all language typologies. All this necessitates this study on the effects of lexical aspect and/or lexical saliency on acquisition of past tense-aspect morphology among Itu mbon uso speakers with major objectives stated in the following section.

1.4        Objectives of the Study

 

The major objective of this study is to analyze the written narratives of Ibibio learners of ESL in order to investigate the general pattern of acquisition of tense-aspect morphology. Specific objectives include:

  • To describe the general pattern of distribution of tense-aspect morphology among Itu mbon uso speakers speakers
  • To describe the pattern of distribution of the past tense-aspect morphology among Itu mbon uso speakers vis-à-vis the predictions of the AH and CSH.
  • To provide an account of other factors like the differences in levels of proficiency, the effects of instruction and the effects of the L1 that might affect the acquisition and distribution of the past tense-aspect morphology among Itu mbon uso speakers speakers

 

4 There are certain structural (pertaining to linguistics structures) and conceptual features that most African languages share that are not common among European languages. Such features as Serial Verb Construction, Reduplication, etc. that create unique verbal morphology in these languages can have direct or indirect effects on how ESL learners with African language L1 acquire English morphology in relation to tense-aspect. The study of these differences, in my opinion, has the potential to confirm or refute any SLA theories in unique ways.

 

The achievement of these objectives will enhance comparison of research results from studies with L2 learners across typologically diverse L1 leading to theoretical generalizations with regards to the tenets of the aspect hypothesis and the cognitive saliency hypothesis.

1.5  Significance of the Study

 

All communicative efforts by both learners and native speakers in a language are affected either positively or negatively by the way temporality is expressed in speech since all utterances are produced in the contexts of time and they confer time reference. An adequate knowledge of the tense-aspect morphology in a language is therefore necessary in the overall effort to acquire a second language and no doubt aids effective communication in the L2. This fact resonates with Weist (2002: 21) who highlights a number of reasons why investigation of tense-aspect is necessary. These are: (1) It shows how the early phase of temporal reference is acquired, (2) It is relevant to the question of how morphological information is processed, (3) It reveals elements of the emergence of verb-argument structure, (4) It provides insights into the learners’ tacit knowledge of syntactic structure, and (5) It has comparative value for research on language acquisition.

On the theoretical level, this study will contribute to building sound theoretical and practical knowledge of how learners acquire aspects of morpho-syntax of their L2. More importantly, it has the potential to provide additional evidence in support of the universality of the AH by showing that the functional aspect of the verbal element is a more important determinant in the acquisition of the past tense-aspect morphology if the predictions of the AH are supported. On the other hand, it also has the potential to support the universality of the CSH by showing that the form of the verbal element is a more important determinant in the acquisition of the past

 

tense-aspect morphology if the predictions of the CSH are supported. This will help researchers to make more informed decisions on what aspects to place more emphasis on. The curriculum designers can decide on whether to increase aspects of form or aspects of function in their curriculum and the language teachers can decide on the selection of the teaching material.

Furthermore, this study will contribute to deeper understanding of the Itu mbon uso in their effort in the acquisition and usage of the language and will provide insight into how important issues concerning acquisition of tense-aspect morphology might be addressed. And more importantly, this study will fill the gap created by lack of empirical studies on this particular topic in the state in particular and the country in general and provide a cross-sectional representation of what the learners do at various stages of acquisition of the tense-aspect morphology in English. All this will be achievable as this study will attempt to find answers to the following research questions.

 

1.6  Research Questions

 

Following the statement of the research problem, the research objectives and the significance of the research, this study will attempt to answer the following questions in the following ways:

  1. What is the pattern of acquisition of the past tense-aspect morphology among Itu mbon uso speakers?

Attempts at answering this question will be made by providing quantitative analyses of the production data to uncover what learners do with respect to the past tense-aspect morphemes.

 

  1. How is the past tense-aspect morphemes distributed in the interlanguage of Itu mbon uso vis-à-vis the predictions of the AH and the CSH?

Attempts at answering this question will be made by comparing the observed pattern of distribution of the tense-aspect morphemes in the production data from Itu mbon uso with the predictions of the AH and the CSH and with similar or divergent results from other studies in the literature.

  • What is the nature of the interaction between the predictions of these two hypotheses?

 

Attempts at answering this question will be made by providing quantitative evidence that has the potential to show whether the effects of the lexical aspectual class or the effects of lexical saliency of the verbs is more significant.

  1. What are the possible cross-linguistic effects that might be peculiar to this group of ESL learners which might be explainable in terms of the conceptual and structural differences between the learners’ L1 and L2?

Attempts at answering this question will be made by providing qualitative analyses of the production data. This has the potential to show whether there are structures that might be attributed to L1 transfer based on what we know from the literature about the temporal systems of both the L1 and the L2.

  1. What are the effects of instruction on acquisition and distribution of the past tense- aspect morphology in the interlanguage of Itu mbon uso?

An attempt to answer this question will be made by examining the English language course contents (syllabus) used in schools to see what has been covered in the classroom at each

 

academic level in relation to tense-aspect markings and checking the production data to observe the learners’ response to what has been covered at each academic level.

 

1.7     Organization of the Study

 

This study is organized into five chapters. After the foregoing introductory chapter we present Chapter 2 which is titled “Literature Review”. In this chapter we lay out the theoretical foundation for this study by discussing the theoretical issues relating to tense, grammatical aspect and lexical aspect. The aspect hypothesis, the cognitive saliency hypothesis and other theoretical approaches employed by scholars in the study of acquisition and distribution of tense-aspect morphology in second language acquisition are also explored. A succinct evaluation of these theoretical approaches is also presented leading to the formulation of both the null and the research hypotheses that drive the discussion in subsequent chapters. In Chapter 3 we present a discussion of all the methodological choices made in the course of the participants’ identification and recruitment. The data collection and analysis procedure are discussed in this chapter.

Chapter 4 presents the results of the data analyses tailored toward testing of the research hypotheses and finding answers to the research questions. Finally, in Chapter 5 we present a discussion of the major research findings together with the psycho-cognitive implications or bases for such findings. We conclude the study with a restatement of the major research findings, the implication of the research finding to the study of tense-aspect morphology in general and the implications of the research findings to the English language pedagogy in the research area.

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