“Why I still can’t questions?” – an investigation of formal and cognitive factors in L2 English question formation (2013)

Author(s): Wright C

    Abstract: This chapter looks at why learners’ grammatical competence in question formation seems to stay resistant to the best input teachers can provide, and why some learners differ so much in their rate of learning compared to others. This chapter presents data from a study of adult Mandarin L1 speakers immersed in the UK, to see how far formal linguistic rules and cognitive factors may interact to explain individual variability in rate of development in different question types. Results showed asymmetry in scores based on formal differences between subject and object questions. Evidence was also found of effects of cognitive load in processing such structures, through a correlation between slower reaction times and working memory capacity. The results of the study indicate that awareness of both formal and processing accounts can help understand how instructed learners may respond to input, and how they might develop beyond the classroom.

    Notes: this is significant and original for both linguistic and psycholinguistic research paradigms - applying combination of formal generative theory and processing models of learning (including working memory constraints) to show implications for classroom practice; content already presented in AAAL colloquium (2011). Chapter splits 50/50 between theory and empirical research findings. First is a discussion of linguistic theory of wh-movement and implications for classroom and immersion settings for language learning, then a report of an empirical study of 32 participants, tracked during a year abroad. Three hypotheses were tested, using psycholinguistic tests of reaction times and working memory, and quantitative statistical analysis of results. Hyp 1: Participants will show asymmetries between object vs subject question forms on timed grammaticality judgments, measured as faster speed and greater accuracy. Hyp 2: Participants will show improvement in accuracy and reaction speed over time due to increased exposure to input in an immersion setting. Hyp 3: WM capacity is associated with variation in rates of improvement over time during immersion due to WM’s role in facilitating language learning. Hypotheses 1 significantly supported; 2 partly supported (improvements found only for speed, not accuracy), 3 not supported in positive direction for either speed or accuracy; in fact working memory capacity showed significant association with slower speeds, with implications for current interpretations of processing models and role of working memory in the learning process.

      • Book Title: Universal Grammar and the Second Language Classroom
      • Publisher: Springer
      • Publication type: Book chapter
      • Bibliographic status: Submitted