L2 Sequences of Acquisition

SLA Topics   Vivian Cook  SLL & LT Website Key Issues (inc sequence)

Three questions to ask about sequences of acquisition

1. What is the actual L2 sequence in English?

2. Is it like the L1 sequence through which native children progress?

3. What are the reasons why this sequence occurs?

The Grammatical Morpheme Studies

Common L2 order of difficulty for grammatical morphemes 
(Dulay and Burt)
1 plural “-s” “Books
2 progressive “-ing” “John going
3 copula “be” “John is here”
4 auxiliary “be” “John is going”
5 articles “the/a” “The books”
6 irregular past tense “John went
7 third person “-s” “John likes books”
8 possessive “’s” “John’s book”

Key Research Summary
Dulay, H.C., & Burt, M.K. (1973), ‘Should we teach children syntax?’, Language Learning, 23/2, 245-258
Data type: sentences elicited via the BSM (Bilingual Syntax Measure) - cartoon description
L2 learners: 151 Spanish-speaking children aged 6-8 learning English in the USA
Method of analysis:
i) establishing percentage supplied in obligatory contexts for 8 grammatical morphemes
ii) ordering these from most to least










pl. “-s”


cop. “be” 

aux “be”



3p. “-s” 

poss. “-s”

Claims: ‘there does seem to be a common order of acquisition for certain structures in L2 acquisition’ (Dulay and Burt, 1973, p.256).









L2: Dulay & Burt 1974a



plural -s 

reg. past

irreg. past

 poss. ‘s 

3rd p. ‘s









L1: Brown 1973


plural ‘s

irreg. past


poss. ‘s

reg. past

 3rd p. ‘s 

Comparison of L1 and L2 sequences for 7 grammatical morphemes

Other references

Dulay, H.C., Burt, M. & Krashen, S. (1982), Language Two, Newbury House, Rowley, Mass.

Lightbown, P.M. (1987), ‘Classroom language as acquisition to second language acquisition’, in C.W. Pfaff (ed.), First and Second Language Acquisition Processes, Newbury House

Lee, D.J. (1981), ‘Interpretation of morpheme rank ordering in L2 research’, in P. Dale & D. Ingram (eds.)

Perkins, K., & Larson-Freeman, D. (1975), ‘The effect of formal language instruction on the order of morpheme acquisition’, Language Learning, 25

Porter, J.H. (1977), ‘A cross-sectional study of morpheme acquisition in first language acquisition’, Language Learning, 27, 1, 47-61


The Processability Model

Peter is happy   Is Peter happy         

Peter will like who?   Who will Peter like?        

Peter broke the window  The window was broken by Peter

'Facts' about German

1) Declarative main clause order Subject Verb Object (SVO),"Ich liebe dich" (I love you).

2) Non-inflected verb forms such as participles must occur at the end of main clauses as in "Ich habe dich geliebt" Subject Auxiliary Object Verb (SAuxOV) (I have you loved).

3) The Verb comes second in main clauses after adverbs, question words, or topicalised NPs, "Immer liebe ich dich" Adverb Verb Subject Object (AdvVSO) (Always love I you).

4) Subordinate clauses usually have SOV order rather than SVO as in "Ich sagte dass ich dich liebte" Subject Verb [Complementiser Subject Object Verb] (I said that I you loved).


Stages of L2 acquisition of German

Stage 1 Formulas and one word sentences. Either one word utterances or set formulas; "kinder" (children) or "madchen" (girl).

Stage 2 Canonical Order (alias "stage X"). SVO canonical order for German, seen in "Die Kinder essen Äpfel" Subject Verb Object (The children eat apple).

Stage 3 Adverb preposing (stage X+1). Preposing of adverbs without inversion of subject and verb; "Da kinder spielen" Adverb Subject Verb (There children play). Movement preposes the Adverb;
Adverb preposing
: Subject Verb Adverb ® Adverb Subject Verb
"Ich gehe jetzt nach Hause" > *"Jetzt ich gehe nach Hause".

Stage 4 Verb Separation (stage X+2). Verb is moved to the end of the sentence when it is non-inflected, i.e. preceded by an auxiliary: "Ich habe ein Haus gebaut" (I have a house built) rather than *"Ich habe gebaut ein Haus" (I have built a house).:
Verb separation (of non-inflected forms)
Subject Auxiliary Verb Object > Subject Auxiliary Object Verb
Correct Subject Aux Object Verb, "Alle kinder muss die pause machen" (All children must a break have).

Stage 5 Inversion (stage X+3). Inversion of Subject and Verb following Adverbs etc, yielding "Dann hat sie wieder die knoch gebringt" Adverb Aux Subject Adverb Object Verb (Then has she again the bone brought).
inversion (after certain items) X Subject Verb Object X Verb Subject Object

Stage 6 Verb Final (stage X+4). The Verb moves to Final position in subordinate clauses, "Wenn ich nach House gehe, kaufe ich diese tabac" (When I home go ...). Hence the rule applies to sentences after subordinating conjunctions such as "dass", to indirect speech clauses, and to relative clauses. :
Verb Final (in embedded clauses): ...[complementiser Subject Verb Object] ® ...[complementiser Subject Object Verb]

German/English examples
Stage (Meisel, Clahsen (Pienemann & principles (Pienemann &
Pienemann,1981) Johnston,1987) (Clahsen,1984) Johnston,1987)

Single words Single words
(0) formulas formulas

2 SVO SVO Canonical
(X) "no" +SVO order strategy

3 Adverb Adverb-fronting Initialisation/ distinguishing
(X+1) -Preposing Topicalisation finalisation beginnings and
(Adv SVO) initial "do" strategy endings of initial wh-words strings
Yes/No Questions

4 Verb Aux "-ing" recognising a
(X+2) -Separation preposition- category within stranding the string

5 Inversion Wh Inversion recognising
(X+3) (Adv V S O ) 3rd person "-s" different dative "to" categories in
the string

6 Verb Final embedded clauses Subordinate breaking
(X+4) ( S O V ) reflexives clause strategy elements within
dative movement a string into


5 · Sub.-clause procedure main and sub clause inter

4 · S-procedure inter-phrasal info. exchange

3 · Phrasal procedure phrasal info. exchange

2 · Category procedure lexical morphemes

1 · Word/lemma access “words”

The Hierarchy in the Processability Model

The Processability Model

General claims: the prediction of structures that can be processed at different levels

SLA research questions: does L2 acquisition follow the predicted route?

SLA research techniques: collection and study of corpora

Specimen research: Pienemann 1998 on German and Japanese

Other L2 spin-offs: teachability hypothesis

Links: LFG allegedly ('unification' grammars)

References< >

Clahsen, H, Meisel, J.M., & Pienemann, M. (1983), Deutsch als Zweitsprache: Der Sprachenerwerb auslandischer Arbeiter, Gunter Narr Tubingen

Meisel, J.M., Clahsen, H., & Pienemann, M. (1981), 'On determining developmental stages in natural second language acquisition', SSLA, 3, 2, 109-135

Pienemann, M. (1998), Language Processing and Second-Language Development: Processability Theory, Amsterdam, John Benjamins

Pienemann, M., & Johnston, M., (1987), 'Factors influencing the development of language proficiency', in D. Nunan (ed.), Applying Second Language Research, NCRC, Adelaide, Australia

Pienemann, M. & A. Mackey. 1993. “An empirical study of children’s ESL development and Rapid Profile”. In P. McKay (ed.), ESL development. Language and literacy in Schools, Vol. 2. Commonwealth of Australia and National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia, 115-259.





1 What is the actual sequence? 



2 Is it like L1 sequence?



3 Why does it occur? 




Here are two essays written by teenage children learning English as an L2 in England. Try scoring them according to the Multidimensional Model. Which stage is each one of them at? (Ignore spelling mistakes)

A. Birthday Robbery
one day there was party a Birthday Party.
It was Mr and Mrs Smiths Sons Birthday he was twelve
They invited all the friends fo their son and their parnets. By the way the boy who's Birthday was his name was Keith.
two of his best freind were there too named peter and jhon.
They were really not his Bestfriends they were sons of big whealthy Robbers they were planing to Robb Mrs Smiths richess.
As Peter asked Keith for a drink. While John went upstairs to Mrs Smith's room and got the necholes out of the sofe and came downstairs and sat by Keith as he sat some nose noise came out of his cloths and Keith said that in your pocket.
John said oh nothing.
Keith said I want to see the object in your pocket and when he got the necholes out and both started to run John and Peter.
And some other boys court them.

B. My self
I am a gril girl and my name is Joan and I am 11 yea old and I go to Camford School. and I live on 224 Camford Road and I have one Brother and one brother and Brother name is Fred an brother [teacher's interpretation: sister] is name is Jane and my Brothe and I hope two two I like ta da vaeg to redy and raetga. [teacher's interpretation: to do washing, to reading and writing]