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Parameter resetting of functional categories and features in the DP of adult English speaking L2 learners of Spanish; the four stages of DP reset to approach ultimate attainment

Stephen B Hawes, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation investigates the change in the internal syntactic structure of the Determiner Phrase (DP) of the adult learner who is studying Spanish as a second language, henceforth L2, and whose mother tongue (L1) is English. The focus within the DP structure will be on whether or not L2 learners are able to acquire feature categories within their DP as well as gender features on nouns, adjectives and determiners that are intrinsic in the target language they are studying, yet void in their L1 (Curzan, 2003; Gess & Herschensohn, 2001; Schwartz and Sprouse 1996). The accomplishment of this task would signify that the Parameters of the L1 have been reset and by extension giving evidence in favor that Universal Grammar (UG) is being accessed by post puberty adult learners (Chomsky 1981, 1986, 1995; White 1985, 2001, 2003). If this were indeed possible then we could say that ultimate attainment is possible for adults learning a second language (Birdsong, 1992). However, some contend that errors that persist in this area is evidence that parameters are not being reset but that the L2 learner is utilizing some other strategy to compensate for the inability of parameter reset (Hawkins 2001, Smith and Tsimpli 1995). Under the premise of the Minimalist Program, Chomsky (Chomsky 1993, 1995), adopts, in essence, a linear model of word formation (WF), suggesting that the output of this WF component produces fully formed words with its feature bundles, and inserts them into the syntax fully inflected (Borer 1998). I suggest that it is here, prior the output of the WF component, where the errors, or incorrect tagging occur in L2 learners. As a result, when the words are introduced into syntax, there is no discrimination between correct or erroneous gender features on the word by the syntax, but that it simply checks the features that are assigned the formed word. As a result, the L2 speaker might demonstrate concord within the DP though the gender is incorrect. Through this dissertation I suggest that a Number category as well as the corresponding features present in the L1 speaker's DP are transferred to his or her L2 (Schwartz and Sprouse 1996), followed by the acquisition of a gender category and gender features through a four stage process of parameter reset. The review of previous as well as more recent studies along with my testing of adult L2 learners and subsequent finds will suggest that ultimate attainment is possible for L2 learners beyond the sensitive age. If this is indeed the case, it would suggest that L2 learners are accessing UG, and are able to reset their parameters; contrary to what some claim within the field of adult second language acquisition (Bley-Vroman 1990; Smith and Tsimpli 1995).

Subject Area

Language arts|Linguistics

Recommended Citation

Hawes, Stephen B, "Parameter resetting of functional categories and features in the DP of adult English speaking L2 learners of Spanish; the four stages of DP reset to approach ultimate attainment" (2007). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3299401.