Acquisition of «be» by Cantonese ESL Learners in Hong Kong- and its Pedagogical Implications

by Mable Chan (Author)
©2014 Thesis 427 Pages


The present study examines grammaticality judgment data, production data and acceptability judgment data from 243 Cantonese second language learners and a control group of 12 native English speakers. Research areas concern (a) the role of the first language in the acquisition of be by Cantonese second language learners; (b) the question if properties associated with be remain persistently problematic for Cantonese speakers; (c) developmental stages of the acquisition of be; (d) the relationship between morphology and syntax; and (e) pedagogical implications.
No published L2 research has attempted an in-depth theoretical and empirical treatment of both acquisition and teaching subject matters in one single work. This work helps bridge the gap between acquisition theory and language pedagogy research, benefitting not just language learners but language teachers around the world, and all those who would like to witness a collaboration between second language acquisition theory and second language teaching practice in general.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter 1 Introduction: Knowledge, Classroom Input and Performance in the Development of Second Languages
  • 1.1 Overview
  • 1.2 What Constitutes Second Language Acquisition
  • 1.2.1 Effects of Classroom Input in the Development of Interlanguage Grammars
  • Relative Effects: Is naturalistic exposure or classroom instruction better?
  • Absolute Effects: Is explicit or implicit instruction more effective?
  • Corrective Feedback: Explicit or Implicit?
  • 1.2.2 Hypotheses about the role of the L1
  • 1.2.3 Knowledge and performance
  • 1.3 Summary
  • 1.4 Organization of the Book
  • Chapter 2 Linguistic Assumptions
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 What is Be?
  • 2.2.1 Copula Be in English
  • 2.2.2 Progressive be
  • 2.3 The syntax of be
  • 2.4 The Cantonese equivalent of be: haih
  • 2.4.1 How progressive be is expressed in Cantonese
  • 2.4.2 Syntactic Distribution of haih
  • 2.4.3 Functions of haih
  • 2.4.4 The underlying syntactic structure of constructions involving haih
  • 2.5 Comparison of English be and Cantonese haih
  • Chapter 3 Literature Review
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Summary of L2 morpheme studies
  • 3.3 Acquisition problems posed by be
  • 3.3.1 Possible Accounts for the Omission problem
  • 3.4 Research Questions
  • Chapter 4 Methodology
  • 4.1 Experiment
  • 4.2 Subjects
  • 4.3 Procedures
  • 4.4 Rationale for the Tasks
  • 4.4.1 The Grammaticality Judgment Task
  • 4.4.2 Story Writing Task
  • 4.4.3 Acceptability Judgment Task
  • 4.5 Scoring Method
  • 4.5.1 Grammaticality Judgment Task
  • 4.5.2 Storytelling Task
  • 4.5.3 Acceptability Judgment Task
  • Chapter 5 Results
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Grammaticality Judgment Task
  • 5.2.1 Counterparts of be in Cantonese
  • 5.2.2 Non-counterparts of be in Cantonese
  • 5.2.3 Optionality of be in Predication (temporary and permanent) in Cantonese
  • 5.2.4 Two Common problems reported in the literature: Overgeneralization of be and Substitution
  • 5.2.5 Inflection (IP) of the subjects
  • 5.3 Production Task (storywriting)
  • 5.3.1 Beginner Group
  • 5.3.2 Elementary Group
  • 5.3.3 Lower Intermediate Group
  • 5.3.4 Upper Intermediate Group
  • 5.3.5 Advanced Group
  • 5.3.6 Very advanced Group
  • 5.4 Acceptability Judgment Task
  • 5.4.1 Acceptable Habitual
  • 5.4.2 Unacceptable Progressive
  • 5.4.3 Acceptable Progressive
  • 5.4.4 Unacceptable Habitual
  • Chapter 6 Discussion and Conclusion
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 The role of the L1 in the acquisition of be
  • 6.2.1 The role of the L1 in different initial state hypotheses
  • 6.2.2 Consistency of the findings with these theories
  • Developmental patterns in the acquisition of be
  • Copula be
  • Auxiliary be Progressive ing
  • 6.2.3 Implications for the initial state hypotheses
  • 6.3 Knowledge and Performance
  • 6.3.1 Differences between Cantonese L2 learner English and native English with respect to tense: the production task
  • 6.3.2 Discrepancy between production data and knowledge data
  • 6.4 Pedagogical Implications
  • 6.4.1 Quantity of Instruction versus Proficiency Levels
  • 6.4.2 Possible Role of Instruction
  • Myth 1: Does instruction promote transfer from the L1?
  • Myth 2: Is instruction ineffective as far as language production goes?
  • Myth 3: Is Instruction most effective when L2 learners are ready: Copula be as a variational feature?
  • Myth 4: Explicit or implicit instruction more effective?
  • 6.4.3 Conclusion on pedagogical implications of the findings
  • 6.5 A follow-up study
  • 6.5.1 How simple past tense is being taught in primary classrooms in HK
  • 6.5.2 Strategies used by teachers in teaching simple past tense
  • 6.5.3 Teaching approaches
  • 6.5.4 Teachers’ perceptions about students’ problems in acquiring simple past tense
  • 6.5.5 Teachers’ perceptions about students’ problems in using simple past tense
  • 6.5.6 Teachers’ suggestions of teaching simple past tense
  • 6.5.7 Conclusion of findings
  • 6.6 Conclusion
  • 6.6.1 Role of the L1 and the initial state
  • 6.6.2 Knowledge and Performance
  • 6.6.3 Pedagogical Implications
  • 6.6.4 Suggestions for further studies
  • Appendix A: Description of the subjects
  • Appendix B: Subjects’ Version of the English test
  • Appendix C: Researcher’s Version of the English test
  • Appendix D: Original Story: The Woman who Tricked Death
  • Appendix E: Sentences produced by Cantonese ESL learners in Task 2
  • Appendix F: Different property types used by the Cantonese ESL learners in Task 2
  • Appendix G: Different property types (and the frequency) used by each proficiency group in Task 2
  • Appendix H: Target-like forms and non-target-like forms for different property types (all subjects) produced in Task 2 (0: not, 1: yes)
  • Appendix I: Target-like forms and non-target-like forms for different property types produced by each proficiency level in Task 2 (0: not, 1: yes)
  • Appendix J: Processing operations involved in the acquisition of grammatical rules
  • Appendix K: Romanization Systems: Yale, IPA and LSHK
  • Appendix L: Questionnaire of the follow-up study
  • References

Chapter 1 Introduction: Knowledge, Classroom Input and Performance in the Development of Second Languages


Findings from 30 years of empirical research into second language acquisition (SLA) have highlighted the importance of distinguishing the L2 knowledge developed in the mind of the learner from the input the learner is exposed to, and the use that a learner makes of that knowledge. Learners do not always learn what they are taught or encounter in input, and their production of L2 may not be an accurate reflection of what they know, as

there may sometimes be a breakdown in the relationship between one part of the grammar and another, such that the learner cannot always access the relevant morphology even when it has been acquired. (White 2003: 179)

Two other factors that may facilitate our understanding of SLA are: the role of the L1 and the extent to which knowledge from a universal faculty of language (i.e. Universal Grammar) is involved.

The present study about the acquisition of be by Cantonese ESL learners in Hong Kong aims to investigate the relationship between knowledge, the role that classroom input plays in the development of that knowledge, and learners’ use of the L2 knowledge they acquire (i.e. their performance). Be is an exponent of two fundamental properties of sentence structures in English: tense and subject verb agreement. Neither of these properties is realised overtly in Cantonese and therefore Cantonese ESL learners have to acquire these properties from scratch.

Be has its own characteristic distribution. It is used to carry tense and subject-verb agreement properties in sentences where the constituent predicated of the subject is non-verbal: S be N (e.g. for identification purposes), S be Adj (e.g. for permanent or temporary predication), S be ← 9 | 10 → PP (e.g. showing locations). Be also conveys progressive or future meaning when it co-occurs with verbs marked with -ing. It can also be used with a past participle as in passive constructions, which is not the focus of this study. Cantonese also has an equivalent of copula be which shares some but not all of these functions, which will be described in the next chapter.

Within the generative approach to SLA, a distinction has been made between functional and lexical categories. While lexical categories refer to verbs (V), nouns (N), adjectives (A) and prepositions (P) heading lexical phrases such as VP, NP, AP and PP respectively, functional categories instantiate inflectional morphology or closed-class verbs (e.g. past tense and present tense markers -ed and -s; progressive aspect -ing; person and number agreement marker -s). In accounting for acquisition, Universal Grammar constrains that acquiring a functional category entails the acquisition of both the correct form of inflection and its interpretation. As be is an exponent of tense and subject verb agreement in English, this study of L2 acquisition of be sheds light on L2 development of inflectional morphology, role of the L1 and UG, as well as pedagogical implications, which is an in-depth theoretical (linguistic) plus empirical examination of both acquisition and pedagogy in one single work and is highly original.

This chapter reviews what constitutes second language acquisition in terms of the role of instruction, L1 and Universal Grammar (UG). It summarizes studies that have considered instruction as input to L2 learners, outlines different hypotheses that have been proposed about the role of the L1 in L2 acquisition, and also considers what production or surface representation tells us about learners’ L2 knowledge. Such background information will be of direct relevance in understanding the results of the present study on the acquisition of be by Cantonese ESL learners and in understanding the pedagogical implications of those results.

Section 1.2.1 first describes what is known about the effects of classroom instruction and corrective feedback on L2 learner knowledge, compared with the development of L2 knowledge in ‘naturalistic’ (i.e. immersion) environments. Section 1.2.2 considers various hypotheses that have been proposed about the role of the L1 in the development of L2 knowledge. Section 1.2.3 examines different claims about what L2 performance tells us about L2 knowledge. ← 10 | 11 →

1.2What Constitutes Second Language Acquisition

1.2.1Effects of Classroom Input in the Development of Interlanguage Grammars

The unconscious or implicit knowledge that an L2 learner develops as the result of contact with a target second language has come to be known as that learner’s ‘interlanguage grammar’ (Selinker 1972). This system of knowledge is typically different both from the learner’s L1 and from the target language. Since one of the aims of this study is to assess the pedagogical implications of how Chinese-speaking classroom learners’ interlanguage grammars represent properties of English be, a review of the literature assessing what is currently known about the effects of classroom instruction is important. Effects: Is naturalistic exposure or classroom instruction better?

One question that has been addressed by researchers interested in the effects of classroom input on interlanguage grammars is whether learners who receive classroom input are more successful in acquiring properties of an L2 than learners who are simply immersed in the target language. To find out if classroom instruction or naturalistic exposure to the L2 is more effective, a number of empirical studies have been carried out comparing subjects whose input was from the classroom only, whose input was from natural exposure only, or whose input was in a mixed setting (instruction plus naturalistic exposure).

In a review of 11 studies of the effects of second language instruction, Long (1983) divided instruction type into several subcategories, e.g. instruction plus exposure versus exposure only, more instruction versus less instruction, etc. This yielded a clearer picture of the relative effects of instruction versus exposure. The first subcategory, grouping 4 studies that contrasted instruction plus exposure and exposure only (Upshur 1968; Hale and Budar 1970; Mason 1971; Fathman 1975) suggested that instruction plus exposure did not lead to a better English proficiency level than exposure only. Yet according to Long, there may be variables here which need to be controlled before such a conclusion can be ← 11 | 12 → reached, including the social status of the subjects and parental attitudes/influence. If such variables are controlled, instruction may have a positive impact given the same amount of exposure for both groups (i.e. instruction plus exposure and exposure only) and it may be particularly significant for learners in the early stages.

By varying the amount of instruction, another subcategory of studies (Upshur 1968; Fathman 1976) gave rise to somewhat different conclusions regarding the effects of instruction. The former study concluded that no significant differences were found in the gain scores of two groups with different amounts of instruction (1 hour ESL instruction for one group and 2 hours for another group per week). Less instruction was found to be even more effective in Fathman’s study. Long (1983) argued that the implications of Fathman’s findings may be less clear than claimed because of the way gain scores were interpreted, and amount of instruction may easily be argued to benefit learners at lower proficiency levels more.

The third subcategory grouped two studies which examined the effect of different amounts of instruction on subjects with the same amount of exposure (Krashen et al 1974; Krashen and Seliger 1976). Exposure was defined by a ‘practice score’ derived by the sum of the ‘talking’ scores (from a scale of 1–10) representing the subjects’ amount of talk to native speakers of English, speakers of the native language and foreigners, further multiplied by their length of stay in the United States. Results showed that more instruction predicted higher proficiency, with a suggestion that more instruction could compensate for less exposure.

A fourth subcategory of studies allowed a comparison between conditions where amount of instruction was held constant while amount of exposure was varied (Krashen et al 1974; Krashen and Seliger 1976; Martin 1980). The first two studies both reported null effects of more exposure on the subjects’ proficiency level. Yet Martin’s (1980) study produced opposite findings which, according to Long (1983), may be due to greater motivation of the subjects in Martin’s study than in the first two studies. Motivation was a factor which should have been controlled for.

If the findings presented in the third and fourth subcategories are brought together, they suggest that the effect of instruction is significant in determining L2 learners’ performance on the tasks that were administered to them, and this effect may be independent of the amount of natu ← 12 | 13 → ralistic exposure they receive. More instruction could even be more beneficial than more exposure.

This review by Long (1983) of 11 studies of the effects of second language instruction on development of learners’ interlanguage grammars comes to the conclusion that instruction brings positive increases in performance, for both children and adults of different proficiency levels and on different kinds of tests. Not long after this review was undertaken, another group of studies was conducted which focused on the effect of instruction on developmental stages. These studies of the acquisition of English grammatical morphemes and German word order (Pica 1985; Ellis 1989; Pienemann 1989) concluded that exposure in classroom environments made no significant difference to the stages of development of learners’ knowledge of the properties in question, compared with exposure in non-tutored environments. In other words, learners’ developmental stages are independent of the kind of input received.

German word order varies in a sentence according to the type of clause involved. In main clauses in German, the tense-marked verb (content verb or auxiliary verb) must appear in second position in the clause (known as verb second or V2) while participle, infinitive or verbal particle must appear in sentence-final position. In embedded clauses, the finite verb must appear in clause-final position. It has been found that these word order properties are acquired in the following stages by L2 learners from different L1 backgrounds, including Italian, English, Portuguese and Spanish:

Stage 1: word order like English, where the parts of the verb are placed in the middle of a sentence

Stage 2: learners distinguished tense-marked auxiliaries from participles, infinitives and particles in main clauses

Stage 3: learners put the tense-marked verb in the second position in main clauses


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
Native speaker Classroom Input Discussion Language learner Methodology
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 427 pp.

Biographical notes

Mable Chan (Author)

Mable Chan is a lecturer in the Department of English, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She obtained her B.A. (Hons) degree in English and Translation, MPhil in English (General/Applied Linguistics) and her PhD in Language and Linguistics from the University of Essex (UK). Her research interests are in the areas of second language acquisition, generative grammar and applied linguistics.


Title: Acquisition of «be» by Cantonese ESL Learners in Hong Kong- and its Pedagogical Implications
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