European Science Foundation Project in SLA

SLA Topics  Vivian Cook  ESFlink
If I know only my own language, I am no better than a chicken scratching around for its own food in a narrow pen. If, however, I know the white man's language I can soar like an angel (Zulu chief in Lewis, 1980, p.57)


1. What are the factors on which acquisition depends?
  - cognitive/perceptual disposition of the adult speaker
  - propensity factors such as needs, attitudes etc
  - exposure to the language
2. What is the general structure of second language acquisition with respect to (a) the order in which elements are acquired and (b) the speed and success of the acquisition process?
3. What are the characteristics of communication between native and non- native speakers of a language?


Recently arrived young adults aged 18-30














Data Collection Methods

Over 2½ yrs at 4-6 week intervals)


i. role plays (with invited ‘expert’)
ii. play-scenes (videoed simulation of ‘The shrunken sweater’ ‘Sending a parcel)
iii. Observation (real-world visit accompanied by researcher)
iv. Self-confrontation (playing video of learner back)


i. stage directions task (watching a scene such as ‘The stolen ashtray’ and then getting people to recreate it)
ii. picture description (telling someone else how to draw something)
iii temporal reference (personal narrative of daily events)
iv. utterance structure (Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is divided in two, one bit is watched by subject and researcher; the second is seen by the subject alone who has to tell the researcher what has happened)


Learner language exists in its own right, derived from a set of organisational principles
A. phrasal principles: the basic variety
B. semantic principles:
the controller principle: the NP referent with highest control comes first
control=‘the degree to which one referent is in control of, or intends, to be in control of the other referents’: Controller first

pragmatic principles:
(quaestio= implicit question)
Charlie went to the shipyard. (who/where/did he/what happened
familiarity to the listener (the/a); maintenance (old) versus introduction (new)

topic-focus structure: ('"focus" that part of a statement which specifies the appropriate candidate of an alternative raised by the question and "topic" the remainder of the answer', K&P, 1992)
focus principle: Focus last


A. development goes from nominal (unconnected nouns, etc) via infinite Its pinch some bread, to finite utterance organisation Man is coming in.
B. Transition from NUO (nominal utterance organisation; stray lexical items, no morphology) to IUO (infinite utterance organisation: non-finite verbs) and from there to FUO (finite utterance organisation) is slow and gradual
C. On each level, utterance structure is governed by the interaction of a limited number of phrasal, semantic and pragmatic constraints
D. The placement of adverbials and negation mainly depends on topic-focus structure and semantic scope.
E. Initial steps in development are dominantly guided by universal principles; factors attributable to specifics of SL and TL are more characteristics of later stages.

The basic variety

A. NP1—V—(NP2   Mädchen nehme Brot (girl take bread)      
Alternative to A: D. NP1—NP4—V  
B NP1—Cop—NP2    it’s bread



C. V—NP2     pinching its.
where NP1 may =personal pronoun or empty element, NP2 must=lexical
— rule C is restricted to presentationals (answers to wh qs)
— rule A can have third NP
— time and space adverbials can precede or follow all patterns
— focus last and controller first apply throughout
— NUO (nominal utterance organisation) > IUO (infinite utterance organisation) > FUO (finite utterance organisation)
— beyond the basic level, finiteness is crucial

Factors for question I

1. communicative needs: ‘acquisition is pushed by the communicative tasks of the discourse activities that the learner takes part in’
2. crosslinguistic influence. ‘SL influence affects the rate, and the success, of the process, but tends not to affect the sequence/order’; the basic variety is 'remarkably impermeable to the specifics of source language and target language'
3. Extrinsic factors. More social contacts, more language.
4. Limits on processing

References (see Mitchell & Myles pp.112-120)

Perdue, C. (ed.). 1993. Adult language acquisition: Cross-linguistic Perspectives. (2 vols). CUP

Klein, W. & Perdue, C. 1992. Utterance structure: developing grammars again. Benjamins

Klein, W. & Perdue, C. 1997. The basic variety (or: couldn’t natural languages be much simpler?). Second Language Research,13, 4, 301-347


(for the complete ESF data go to

SAMPLE OF Punjabi-English

INTERVIEWERS m = margaret simonot; b = mangat bhardwaj

SUBJECT r = ravinder



DATE 14-FEB-1984

r: + its/ another one girl + its name + girl er s < >


: + its pinch + its er +++ pinch some broad + and van

: mhm

: and <+++>
<longish pause>
after <its> coming man + m er ++ girl is push like man is drop it
then floor
<it is unclear here and in the following whether r says ‘its' or 'is' or he's with this word>

its bread + its +++ <can’t explain proper>

man is er + coming in + its it erm pinching bread
and it’s/ plan is go to back to jail


and ++ shop man its coming its lady looking said not pinching it its
this man

r its "she pinching”

m good

r < >
r and + police ++ shop man and lady police m tell him er not this man
r pinching its er [girl]
m [(xxx)]
r pinching

a uhuh good
r < >
r and mh ++ charlie < >
r its police +++ girl arresting

1. Transcripts start with a header providing global information about the episode transcribed. The first line serves for computer programmes getting ready access to the codes used for the informants and interviewers in the transcript. The following lines are given in the format: KEYWORD: text, where KEYWORD is taken from a set of labels and text is any free-text entry for the label. Whenever practicable, the text is in a standardised format, such as for dates, participants etc. More detailed information of this type is provided in a protocol file which is available for every encounter.
2. Lines with sharp signs in the first column function as speaker's turn markers.
3. Sense-units (or T-units) may be enclosed in pairs of 0-characters.
4. Angle brackets are used to mark scope for various phenomena. The nature of the phenomena are explained in the comment line(s) following.
5. Non-TL words and sequences in non-TL languages (excluding loan words) are enclosed in asterisks.
6. Non-TL language material is marked by an equal sign followed by a one letter code indicating the non-TL spoken. Here, f =French etc
7. The symbol i= indicates innovative non-L2/non-L1 use in the corresponding string in the speech part.
8. Self-interruption is indicated by a slash. Speaker shift with interruption is marked by a backslash.
9. Overlapping utterances are signalled by enclosing the simultaneous parts of the speakers utterances in brackets.
10. A pair of empty angle brackets is used to allow references in the comment line to material that does not have a representation in the speech line.
11. Sequences interpreted as questions by the transcriber are enclosed in a pair of question-marks.