SLA Topics     SLA Bibliography    Vivian Cook 
The Innateness of a Universal Grammar Principle in L2 users of English
Essex Working Papers November 2000; later form published in IRAL 2003


Structure-dependency represents a test-case for Universal Grammar in second language acquisition. The existence of this principle in the L1 is often taken to demonstrate the innateness of Universal Grammar. Testing its relevance to second language acquisition means showing that L2 learners know structure-dependency regardless of whether their first languages have syntactic movement. Grammaticality judgment tests were given to 140 L2 learners of English with six different L1s and 35 native speakers on relative clauses, questions with relative clauses and questions with structure-dependency violations. All L1 groups judged the structure-dependency sentences with an accuracy between 87% and 100%, with much poorer results on the other sentences; out of the 140 subjects only 9 scored less than 5/6 for structure-dependency, again with lower scores for the others. While L1 groups that had movement (Finnish, Polish, Dutch) and those that did not (Japanese, Chinese, Arabic) did have significant differences for structure-dependency, these were variations within a high level of success. Structure-dependency is active in all L2 learners, though there is some residual effect from the L1 for whatever reason. L2 users know a principle of Universal Grammar which they have not acquired from outside.

One of the compelling arguments for the innateness of Universal Grammar (UG) is ‘Plato’s problem’, alias the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument: "How do we come to have such rich and specific knowledge, or such intricate systems of belief and understanding, when the evidence available to us is so meagre?" (Chomsky 1987: 33). People know more about language than they could have learnt from the samples of language they have encountered: where else could it have originated than from inside their own minds? This resembles a modern version of the theological "argument by design" (Paley, 1802, cited in Gould 1993): the world is so complex that it could not have come into being of its own accord and so must have a designer.

To use the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument to show the innateness of a particular aspect of syntax means going through the following stages (Cook 1991):
A) demonstrating that a native speaker knows this aspect of syntax
B) showing that it could not have been acquired from the language typically available to all children
C) arguing that it is not acquired from outside the mind
D) concluding that it is therefore built-in to the child’s mind.
A similar argument applies to second language (L2) users: if they possess more L2 knowledge than they could have acquired from the language input they have encountered or from the first language (L1) they already know, where else could it have come from other than the Universal Grammar in their minds (Cook 1991)? The variations from L1 acquisition occur in steps B and C: L2 users may meet different types of input from L1 children and already have an L1 in their minds by definition. The argument can be reformulated as:
A΄) demonstrating that an L2 user knows some aspect of L2 syntax
B΄) showing that it could not have been acquired from the language environment typically available to L2 users
C΄) arguing that it is neither acquired from outside nor transferred from the first language
D΄) concluding that it is therefore built-in to the user’s mind.

The arguments about whether Universal Grammar is relevant to L2 users have taken many twists and turns as the syntactic description has changed. Yet the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument remains unrefuted: if L2 users demonstrably know things they have not encountered in their first or second languages or from other input, these must come from within their own minds. It does not matter whether the syntactic knowledge that is acquired is fully understood by linguists. So long as the knowledge exists and could not come from outside, then it must be part of the mind, regardless of the fact it happens to be manifested in a second language rather than a first.

From Chomsky (1971) to Crain and Lillo-Martin (1999) the archetypal example of such innate knowledge is the principle of structure-dependency: "all known formal operations in the grammar of English, or of any other language, are structure-dependent" (Chomsky 1971: 30). Movement is a traditional concept in grammar. The question:

Is John going?

is related in some way to the statement:
John is going.

The relationship can be conceptualised as moving the element is from some prior position to the one in which it actually appears in the question. Most recent theories of syntax have assumed that the actual form of the sentence we encounter differs from an underlying form by having elements in different places. Movement relates this surface sentence to the underlying structure in which the elements are in the positions necessitated by the grammar. Understanding a sentence is using a transposition code to find the plaintext in the coded message.

The most general statement of movement is the rule “Move alpha” (Chomsky & Lasnik 1993: 522), meaning ‘Move anything anywhere’, though it has been claimed that even this is not general enough, being a special instance of “'Affect alpha' (do anything to anything: delete, insert, move)" Chomsky (1986: 74). The interest for Universal Grammar theory is how the innate properties of the mind constrain this principle: what can be moved, where it can be moved to, how far it can be moved, and so on. The principle of structure-dependency determines what by requiring that the element to be moved must have a particular structural role in the sentence, not simply be in a particular place in its linear order. Thus the rule for English question movement must specify which element in the structure is moved, not which word in the sequence or which type of word. It is the fact that is is an auxiliary or a copula within the structure of the sentence that means it moves from:
John is going.


Is John going?

not that is is the second word. Furthermore only the copula in the main sentence can be moved, not the copula in the subordinate clause, so that:

Sam is the cat that is black.


Is Sam the cat that is black?


*Is Sam is the cat that black?

The element that is moved to form a question must then occur in a particular structural role rather than a given linear position. "the rules of language do not consider simple linear order but are structure-dependent ..." (Chomsky 1988: 45). The counter-examples cited to this are languages such as Serbo-Croatian in which clitics move to be the second element, if necessary within a constituent (Comrie 1990).

The particular sentence-type with relative clauses and copula verbs has been the leit-motif in Chomsky’s discussion of structure-dependency. Chomsky (1980) for example contrasts:
Is the man who is here tall?
*Is the man who here is tall?
Chomsky (1988: 42) uses a Spanish equivalent:

Está el hombre, que está contento, en la casa?
(Is the man, who is happy, at home?)
Is the man who is happy at home?

Step A of the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument involves demonstrating that native speakers know structure-dependency, usually taken for granted because native speakers invariably reject structure-dependency violations in this archetypal question form and never seem to make this kind of error in speech. Step B means establishing that structure-dependency is unavailable to children in their usual environment by showing that it could not be deduced solely from the actual sentences that children hear, nor be learnt by correction of deviant utterances, because children do not produce sentences that violate structure-dependency and so parents have nothing to correct. Steps C and D claim that structure-dependency is not acquired from outside and must therefore be part of the children’s minds. Crain and Nakayama (1987) tested the production of yes/no questions by 30 English-speaking children aged 3:2 to 5:11 and found no mistakes at all that could be ascribed to structure-independent movement.

The L2 steps in the argument are similar. If it can be shown that L2 users know structure-dependency (Step A΄), and that it was not available to them in the L2 samples they have heard (B΄) or in some other way (C΄), the only source left is their own minds (D΄). If L2 users know structure-dependency, Universal Grammar is still part of L2 acquisition. In Step C', some L2 users might have had the principle explained to them by a language teacher or have encountered it in a linguistics textbook, unattested, if logical, possibilities. More cogently, the source for structure-dependency in Step C΄ might be the first language. L2 users could transfer the principle from one language to another, and it would be no concern of L2 research how it was acquired in the first place. Structure-dependency in question movement poses an interesting version of this since some languages do not have syntactic movement. In other words while structure-dependency itself does not have any parameters of variation—you either have it or you don't—the structures in which it manifests itself may depend upon other parameters in the language. English, Dutch, Finnish and Polish for instance form questions with movement and hence show structure-dependency in questions. Arabic, Chinese and Japanese form questions by inserting question particles rather than moving elements; they never show the principle of structure-dependency in questions, even if it is needed for other relationships such as binding. Dutch L2 users of English could transfer structure-dependency to English questions directly from Dutch questions; Japanese users could not transfer it directly, but might have an indirect link with other structures in which it was required. The strongest claim of all would then be based on languages where structure-dependency is not found in any structure. This seems unlikely to be true for structure-dependency or for any principle of UG for that matter. The weaker claim that can be made is that structure-dependency as used in questions is not required in some languages.

There is a methodological difference between how L1 and L2 researchers usually show that speakers actually know some aspects of language (Cook 1993). L1 acquisition researchers mostly use production data, collecting samples of naturally occurring speech by children. Linguists dealing with L1 adult knowledge tend to assert that some syntactic property is true of native speaker's competence on the strength of their own or others' intuition about sentences; if a sentence is not grammatical, someone will refute their intuitions; we do not need to waste time establishing that The sky is blue conforms to English grammar as no English speaker could reasonably dispute it. L2 researchers normally claim that L2 learners know some aspect of grammar on the basis of grammaticality judgment tests of L2 learners and native speakers; it is hard to know what would be the status of intuitions about L2s. The difference between the intuitions of the L1 linguist and the grammaticality judgments of the L2 researcher are partly a matter of competence versus performance. Intuitions are as close to testing the Platonic norm of competence as one could get; grammaticality judgments are subject to the usual constraints on performance. Hence, however perfect the competence reflected in intuitions, people's performance in tests of grammaticality judgments is far from perfect. We are unlikely to get complete agreement from everybody in a grammaticality judgments test even to something like The sky is blue. L2 research then deals in percentage success established through performance measures, L1 description in complete success based on linguists' intuitions.

Most SLA research into the availability of the principles and parameters version of Universal Grammar has looked at the question of whether parameters are reset from L1 to L2, whether the parameters are loosely linked to particular principles as in the case of the pro-drop parameter or are involved in the operation of the principle itself. Little has been concerned with whether the principles themselves actually exist in the L2 user's grammar. Tsimpli & Roussou (1991) take principles to be the unvarying element in the L2; learners reset or wrongly set L2 parameters because of the ways in which their L1s work but do not vary the principles themselves. Actual L2 research into structure-dependency has been sparse. The only direct research evidence for structure-dependency in L2 learning comes from Otsu and Naoi (1986), cited in White (1989: 63-66). Eleven teenage Japanese schoolgirls who had just been taught English relative clauses were asked to change them into questions; ten of them succeeded without breaking structure-dependency. Though structure-dependency is not required for Japanese questions, these L2 users clearly knew it in English, showing that in the 'weak' view expressed above that they were applying the principle to an L2 area in which it was not used in the L1.

The present research attempts to provide more evidence for this celebrated test-case of Universal Grammar. It is one outcome from a long-standing project to widen the scope of evidence in the SLA discussions of Universal Grammar by testing a range of syntactic points across L2 users of English with different L1s. The specific aim here is to provide basic evidence that structure-dependency is known by L2 users of English regardless of whether their L1 has syntactic movement or not. The first goal is to establish its presence in all users: this supports the Step C΄ claim that it could not have come from inside the mind but does not rule out its source being the L1 already present in the user’s mind (even if that in turn is based on an innate principle). The second goal is to establish that L2 users of L1s without question-movement also show knowledge of structure-dependency. The two goals test the ubiquity of structure-dependency in L2 acquisition and its source within the mind.

Universal Grammar is, however, a theory of grammars not of languages; that is to say, the aim is to account for the grammar in the mind of an individual, not the social construct of a language shared by a community of speakers: "The grammar in a person's mind/brain is real ... The language (whatever that may be) is not" (Chomsky 1982: 5). Hence, as Davies (1996) has reminded us, it is important to see users not just as groups but as individuals. The ultimate question is whether there are individuals who break structure-dependency, not whether the average person in a group breaks structure-dependency. Since the L2 measurement is grammaticality judgments this requires a percentage success for each individual since the performance aspects of the task may lead to less than complete accuracy.

The research is not intended to be specific to one particular type of syntactic description. Culicover (1991) and Freidin (1991) have argued that structure-dependency derives from other general principles rather than being a principle in its own right; within the mid-nineties Minimalist Program (Chomsky 1995) movement forms part of tree-formation and is driven by morphology in a different mode than in earlier models. But these developments are irrelevant to the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument, which applies to the phenomena called structure-dependency unless it can be shown either that native speakers do not know structure-dependency or that children acquire it from their environment. To say that a bird flies does not mean one has to know the precise structure of its wings. Nor is the behaviour of monolingual native speakers relevant; the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument would be equally valid for L2 users if the responses of native speakers and L2 users differed, so long as the L2 knowledge did not come from outside the user's mind.

Research question

The questions to be investigated are then whether:

all L2 users know structure-dependency

L2 users with first languages that do not have movement have more difficulty with structure-dependency than those that do.

The testable hypotheses are that all L2 users of English will show near-perfect knowledge of structure-dependency; and that there will be differences between the groups of users with and without question-movement in their L1s. Confirming the first hypothesis would show that the principle of structure-dependency is present in all L2 users; failing to confirm the second would suggest at strongest that the principle comes from the innate Universal Grammar rather than transfer from the L1, at weakest that it comes from some internal transfer between different parts of the L1 grammar.


The research instrument used consisted of a grammaticality judgment test. This method is conventional in the Universal Grammar area of L2 research, even if it poses many methodological problems (Birdsong 1989; Paolillo 1999). In the format used here the subjects were given a three-way choice of OK, Not OK, and Not sure, avoiding words such as grammatical or acceptable. The structure-dependency sentences were mixed with sentences testing various parameters of subjacency, adverb position and pro-drop, which will not be discussed here; effectively they will count as distracters.


The sentences testing structure-dependency (SD) came in three types.

A. Relative clauses

Joe is the cat that is black.
These tested whether the subjects were able to handle ordinary relative clauses.

B. Questions with relative clauses

Is Joe the dog that is black?

These tested whether the subjects could handle the same type of relative clause sentence with question movement. In other words these were the correct questions with relative clauses that did not break structure-dependency.

C. Structure-dependency violations in which the wrong auxiliary or copula has been moved.

Is Joe is the dog that black?

These tested structure-dependency violations by moving the is from the relative clause to the initial position. They are modelled on the classic Chomskyan examples and are equivalent to the B type questions except for movement involving a structure-dependency violation.

There were six examples of each sentence type, permuting a limited set of nouns and adjectives. These test sentences were mixed with other sentences in the same randomised order for all subjects. There were 96 sentences in all; the results of 18 are then discussed here.


The same test was distributed over a period of time to L2 students of English with six L1s and to native speakers of English. All the L2 subjects were university students of English1. Since it was not possible to test the English proficiency of all the students, there may be variations between university level English in different countries; hence to some extent each group has to be treated independently. The groups consisted of 35 native speakers of English working or studying at an English university, 27 Japanese and 23 Finnish-speaking students visiting an English university for short courses, 26 Dutch students in the Netherlands, 22 Arabic speaking students in Morocco, 22 Polish-speaking students in Poland and 20 Chinese-speaking students in Hong-Kong. while Though each of the six languages involved has peculiarities of its own, the generalisation for present purposes is that Japanese, Chinese and Arabic do not use syntactic movement for questions, while the rest do.



The scoring was strict in that only positive evidence of knowledge counted: OK or Not OK were treated as correct as appropriate to the sentence; Not sure and no response counted as incorrect as well as the overtly incorrect answer. The results will be presented first for the groups, then for individuals.

i) Scoring by first languages

The results presented in Table 1 and Figure 1 are scored in terms of the numbers of correct responses for each sentence type.

Arabic Chinese Japanese Polish Dutch Finnish English

N: 22 20 27 22 26 23 35

A. Relative clauses 83* 84** 120*** 77 123*** 113*** 201***

B. Questions 73 74 110*** 66 125*** 113*** 193***

C. Structure-dependency 115*** 104*** 154*** 131*** 156*** 137*** 209***

Table 1. Correct scores for each sentence type (6 examples of each)

*** significant at p<0.001 **significant at p<0.01 *significant at p<0.05

(One-Sample t test testing difference from chance score)

All L1 groups scored significantly above chance on the type A relative clauses (One-Sample test, p.<0.001 for English, Finnish, Dutch and Japanese; p.<0.01 for Chinese; p.<0.05 for Arabic) except the Polish speakers (non-significant); the scores for most groups were significant on the type B Questions (One-Sample test, p.<0.001 for English, Finnish, Dutch and Japanese) apart from the Arabic, Chinese and Polish speakers (non-significant); only on the type C structure-dependency violations were the scores for all groups significant at p.<0.001 (One-Sample t test). All groups then score very highly on structure-dependency, less so on the other two structures.

To make the data easier to visualise, they are displayed in Figure 1 in percentage scores.

Comparing the three sentence types, type A relative clauses are relatively difficult for all groups, ranging from 58.3% correct for Polish students to 81.8% for the Finnish speakers with the English natives scoring 95.7%. Type B questions are slightly more difficult than type A for all groups including the native speakers, ranging from 50% for the Polish students to 81.8% for the Finnish students with 91.9% for the English speakers; only the Dutch have a slight advantage of 80.1% for questions over 78.8% for relative clauses. Type C structure-dependency violations are the easiest for all groups, ranging from 86.7% for the Chinese to 100% for the Dutch with the native speakers scoring 99.5%; most groups have a scattering of one or two mistakes, the only groups scoring less then 95% being the Chinese with 86.7% and the Arabic speakers with 87.1%. The scores for type C SD violations then stand out from the rest.

Comparing the groups statistically, for type A relative clauses there is a difference between at least one pair of groups (Kruskal-Wallis chi-squared=38.66, df. 6, p<0.001), attributable to the English native speakers (Multiple Comparisons, p.<0.05); for type B questions, there is again a difference between at least one pair (Kruskal-Wallis, chi-squared=48.30, df.6, p<0.01), attributable to two groupings, English versus Arabic, Chinese, Poles, Japanese and Dutch, and Finnish versus Arabic speakers and Poles (Multiple Comparisons, p.<0.05); for type C structure-dependency violations there is a difference between at least one pair of groups (Kruskal-Wallis chi-squared=54.65, df. 6, p.<0.001), attributed solely to the performance of the Arabic speakers (Multiple Comparisons, p<.0.05).

Let us now compare the two groups of L1s with and without question movement, i.e. Dutch, Polish and Finnish versus Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. Using a t test, the differences are not significant for type A relative clauses and B questions, but reach significance for Type C structure-dependency violations (p.<0.001); using a Mann-Whitney test, there is no significant difference for Type A, some significance for type B (p.<0.028) and a high level of significance for type C (p.<0.001).

ii) Scoring by individuals

We now turn to the scores expressed in terms of subjects scoring at particular levels across all groups. The raw figures showing how many people scored at each level from 0-6 for the three sentence types are given in Table 2 for the L2 users.

Score 0 1 2 3 4 5 6

A. Relative clauses 1 13 13 18 17 29 49

B. Questions 7 9 14 17 23 39 31

C. Structure-dependency 0 1 2 2 4 16 115

Table 2. L2 individual scores for each sentence type out of 6

As shown in Figure 2, both type A relative clauses and type B questions have a gradual rise from left to right with a much lower proportion of individuals obtaining 6 out of 6; type C SD violations, however, peak sharply at 6, with some obtaining 5, and very few getting lower scores. There is a significant difference between type C and both types A and B (Pairwise comparisons test, with Bonferroni adjustment for multiple comparisons, p.<0.001) but the differences between types A and B are not significant at the p.<0.01 level.

Suppose we adopt the arbitrary criterion that knowing the structure means scoring 5 or 6 out of 6 (83.3% or better). Treating all the L2 groups together, type A relative clauses were mastered to criterion by 76 out of 140 subjects, type B Questions by 65 out of 140, type C structure-dependency violations by 131 out of 140. These are displayed as percentages in Figure 3.

Clearly there is a large difference between the sentence types A and B with 54.3% and 46.4% respectively and the type C structure-dependency violations with 93.6%.

Using the same criterion of 5 or better out of 6, Table 3 breaks the L2 users down into groups and adds the native speakers of English.

Arabic Chinese Japanese Polish Dutch Finnish English

N: 22 20 27 22 26 23 35

A. Relative clauses 6 11 19 8 16 16 32

B. Questions 5 9 13 7 16 15 33

C. Structure- dependency 16 20 24 22 26 23 35

Table 3. Individuals scoring at least 5/6 for each sentence-type

Again nearly every group has a high proportion of people scoring 5 or better for type C SD violations, far less for types A and B. These data are presented in Figure 4 in terms of percentages of individuals in each group.

The individuals who score 5 or more out of 6 for type A relative clauses range from 27.3% of the Arabic students to 70.4% of the Japanese and 91.4% of the native speakers. Proportions for type B questions range from 22.7% of the Arabic students to 65.2% of the Finnish students, with 94.2% of native speakers. In contrast the range for type C structure-dependency violations is from 80% of Chinese students to 100% of Polish, Finnish and Dutch students, with 100% of natives: the only groups with less than 90% are the Chinese with 80% and the Arab speakers with 80.9%. Again, when considered in terms of individuals, the Type C structure-dependency violation sentences stand out from the others.



As we saw earlier, though all the students were studying English at university, their English proficiency may have varied both between the groups and between individuals; differences in scores may relate to other uncontrolled differences in their backgrounds. Yet the results for the Type C structure-dependency sentences are highly similar for everyone: the overall scores for each group exceed 85%, most are above 95%; all the L2 groups have 80% or more members who meet the 5/6 criterion, 3 having 100%. Put another way, across the whole test only 9 out of 140 subjects failed to meet the 5/6 criterion, i.e. 6.4%. Reducing the criterion to 4/6 cuts it down to 5 subjects (3.6%). Clearly whatever the differences between groups may be, they all score well on structure-dependency.

Many of the subjects performed badly at what were believed to be the straightforward sentences without structure-dependency violations: students from most groups had difficulties with both the relative clauses and the questions. Yet, despite not knowing these, they could spot a structure-dependency violation almost unerringly. The ability to tell that the structure-dependency violation sentences were not grammatical does not apparently depend on the ability to handle relative clauses and questions; types A and B were indeed correlated but neither A nor B correlated to an appreciable extent with C (Pearson correlation, A with B .732, A with C .167, B with C .270; p.<.01, two-tailed). The ungrammaticality of these sentences was something instantly recognisable, i.e. involved a principle that a copula could not move from inside a relative clause, even if the subjects were uncertain about relative clauses and question-movement themselves. Knowledge of incorrect movement does not necessarily build on a knowledge of relative clauses or of correct movement, unlike the assumptions of cumulative build-up made in say Johnson & Newport (1991). White (1989: 65) claims "there is no point testing for a universal principle if subjects have not mastered the kinds of structures in which that principle would operate". This is not supported by the present results, which shows far superior knowledge of structure-dependency questions over the questions and relative clauses that they seem to require. Some proportion of these could perhaps be explained in terms of the alleged asymmetry of grammatical and ungrammatical judgments (Birdsong 1994) since all the SD violations were necessarily ungrammatical, all the relative clauses and questions grammatical.

Since Universal Grammar theory concerns individual minds not a collective body of language, the results were stated in terms of individuals as well as groups. Only nine individuals out of a hundred and forty failed to meet the 5/6 criterion for structure-dependency sentences, diverse as their other results may be—6 Arabic speakers and 3 Japanese. Given the performance noise built-in to grammaticality judgment tests, this seems as low a percentage of unsuccessful individuals as one could reasonably hope for. Nevertheless there was a highly significant differences between the L1 groups with movement and without movement for structure-dependency but not for the other sentence types. These are, however, differences between high levels of success, not between high and low levels of success. It is hard to separate out the movement difference from other differences between the two groups. The non-movement group also use different orthographic systems from English, whether characters or vowel-less alphabets, which are known to hinder L2 development in writing (Haynes & Carr, 1990). There may also be vocabulary or cultural problems in the sentences specific to one group of users—Hong Kong students have remarked that you cannot say Mary is the cat that is black because cats are not called Mary, perhaps supporting the view that Chinese speakers judge sentences more by word meanings than word order (Miao 1981). It may also be that the level of university English was slightly lower in these groups. Or syntactic movement may indeed be the significant factor. In other words the residue of 6.4% might merit further investigation. But it hardly undermines the main claim that 93.6% of the L2 students tested knew structure-dependency using a fairly strict criterion, compared to the 54.3% who knew relative clauses and the 46.4% who knew questions.

To come back to the hypotheses, almost all the L2 users demonstrated a knowledge of structure-dependency using the standard grammaticality judgment method employed in this field. L2 users with languages without syntactic movement know structure-dependency to a high level, even if they score slightly less than users with L1s with movement. It would be hard to find other research using a grammaticality judgments paradigm that gives a more clear-cut result. There may be faults with the grammaticality judgments method, in particular asymmetry of response (Birdsong 1994) and there are indeed other problems with grammaticality judgments (Paolillo 1999). Yet rejecting the method itself as unsound would undermine most Second Language Acquisition research in the Universal Grammar paradigm. Though structure-dependency remains 'a basic tenet' in much contemporary work (Crain & Lillo-Martin 1999: p.179), these sentences may not ‘really’ be structure-dependency at all but some other syntactic phenomenon to be described in some totally different way. This would only affect the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument if the knowledge could be shown to have been acquired from some external evidence. The L1 languages involved may not be divided as clearly into those with and without syntactic movement as done here; it might be possible to find more polarised examples: yet they provide a wider selection of languages than any other research in this area and at worst show that structure-dependency is acquired for all of them.

The reservation for the SLA poverty-of-the-stimulus argument is Step C' in that, even if structure-dependency is not used for question-movement in an L1 without syntactic movement, it may be used for other syntactic relationships, in other words the weak version mentioned earlier. L2 users might have transferred the principle from one syntactic relationship in the L1 to a new type of syntactic phenomenon they encountered in the L2. The original poverty-of-the-stimulus argument would not be affected in that the source would still not be outside the L2 user's mind but it would be within the part of the mind labelled L1 rather than that labelled UG. This loophole is probably always going to be available in that it may be impossible to find any UG principle that is not utilised somewhere in a given human language and so available to any L2 learner. If it is indeed possible to leap-frog from one structure in the first language to a different structure in the second language in this way, then learners are extremely good at it. The more complex argument that will not be developed here is that it compartmentalises the user's mind into boxes labelled UG, L1 and L2 rather than seeing it as a developing whole state including whatever the individual knows of language at a particular point (Chomsky & Lasnik 1993; Cook 1994).

To come back to the basic ‘what else’ argument, if L2 users know that these sentences are ungrammatical and they have not been acquired from input, what else could such knowledge be but built-in to their own minds? Denying this means either denying that the phenomena covered by structure-dependency exist, or proving that their source lies outside the mind, or claiming that the grammaticality judgments methodology is invalid, or rejecting the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument itself, all of which would be fatal not just to this experiment but to most acquisition research in the Universal Grammar perspective. L2 users clearly know a principle of Universal Grammar in their second language which they have not acquired from outside.

Vivian Cook

University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ, England (now at Newcastle)



1. I am grateful to the students and staff of the Universities of Essex, Fez, Utrecht, Krakow and the Chinese University of Hong-Kong, for their co-operation with this experiment and to Phil Scholfield for his invaluable statistical help and comments.


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