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Productivity, directionality and proficiency: Exploring L2 speakers’ difficulties with recursive NPs

Work on recursion shows that similar structures across languages can vary as to whether they are allowed to recur (Roeper 2011; Sauerland & Gartner 2007). This suggests two distinct learning steps, one that pertains to the acquisition of the embedding rule, and a second step, of learning that the rule is recursive. Learnability wise recursion may need direct exposure, or be triggered by the realization that a given rule is productive, in the formal sense (Yang 2016). These questions can be usefully explored by focusing on intermediate adult language learners; a population that is cognitively mature but with relatively inexperienced with the target language. Intermediate L2 speakers of English often show difficulty with English recursive possessives. Limbach and Adone (2010) document the difficulties comprehending recursive English possessives such as Mary’s father’s house exhibited by German L2 speakers of English. Although German has both the cognate simple (non-recursive) possessive -s structure, and alternative means of expressing recursive possession (via a right branching prepositional construction), German speakers appeared unable to generalize the construction to a recursive configuration, performing no better than the average 5-year-old child. Nelson (2016) finds differences across proficiency groups in L2 speakers of Spanish. In contrast, studies of simultaneous bilinguals by Amaral and Leandro (to appear) show no particular delay in recursive nominal modification structures.

Can L2 difficulties be traced to the differences in directionality in complex structures (left branching vs. right branching)? Or is sufficient experience with recursive structures, which generally have low frequency, required to master this structure? I discuss data from a recent study of L2 speakers of English difficulties with recursive structures using an elicited production task.  We compare the performance of speakers whose L1 is Mandarin (a uniformly left branching language) with speakers of Spanish (a uniformly right branching language) in the production of four recursive constructions in English which vary in branching directionality: possessives (the clown’s monkey’s balloon), PP modifiers (the baby with the woman with the flowers), and relational NPs (the box of cans of tomatoes / the tomato can box).

Amaral, Luis & Wendy Leandro. To appear. Relative Clauses in Wapichana and
the Acquisition of the "-uraz" Constructions. In in T. Roeper, A.Nevins, L. Amaral, M. Maia (Eds.)  Recursion in Brazilian languages and beyond. Cambridge University Press.
Limbach, Maxi, and Dani Adone. 2010. Language acquisition of recursive possessives in English. Proceedings of the 34th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD34), ed. by Katie Franich, Kate M. Iserman, and Lauren L. Keil, 281–290. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Nelson, Jon. 2016. First and Second Language Acquisition of Recursive Operations. U. of Massachusetts doctoral dissertation
Pérez-Leroux, Ana Teresa; Anny P. Castilla-Earls; Susana Bejar; and Diane Massam. 2012. Elmo’s sister’s ball. the development of nominal recursion in children. Language Acquisition 19. 301–311.
Roeper, Tom. 2011. The acquisition of recursion: How formalism articulates the child’s path. Biolinguistics 5. 57–86.
Sauerland, Uli, and Hans-Martin Gärtner (eds.) 2007. Interfaces+ Recursion= Language: Chomsky’s Minimalism and the View from Syntax-Semantics. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Yang, Charles. 2016. The price of linguistic productivity. Cambridge: MIT press.

Prof. Pérez-Leroux is Professor of Spanish and Linguistics and Director of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of Toronto.
Her work seeks to explain how language comes to life in the mind of young speakers. She conducts experiments on how children learn
the syntax and semantics of the smallest and the silent parts of the grammar. Most recent project is a SSHRC-funded crosslinguistic study
of recursive NPs.  The goal is to examine structural complexity in children’s grammar, how it grows in children’s language, and what is
the role of recursion in such growth.