Focus on French as a Foreign Language: Multidisciplinary Approaches

Focus on French as a Foreign Language: Multidisciplinary Approaches

by Jean-Marc Dewaele

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This book offers sharp new insights into the acquisition and use of French as a foreign language.  The authors are specialists in their particular theoretical paradigms and focus on morphology, morpho-syntax, syntax, discourse, as well as fluency in the French interlanguage from beginners to advanced learners with different first languages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781788920322
Publisher: Channel View Publications
Publication date: 02/18/2005
Series: Second Language Acquisition
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Jean-Marc Dewaele is Reader in French and Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck College, University of London. His research focuses on individual differences in second language production, linking linguistic and temporal variables with psychological, situational and sociobiographical variables. He is a co-editor of Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles (2003, Multilingual Matters) and is currently Scientific Commissions Co-ordinator and member of the Executive Board of the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA).

Jean-Marc Dewaele is Professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism, Birkbeck, University of London¸ UK. He has been working in the field for close to 30 years and has published extensively on multilingualism and emotion. He is General Editor of Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.

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Psycholinguistic Studies on the Acquisition of French as a Second Language: The 'Learner Variety' Approach



In this chapter we propose to discuss some studies on adult language acquisition undertaken within the learner variety approach, concentrating on French as a target language (TL). The studies range from an analysis of the initial stages of acquisition (Benazzo, 2000; Starren, 2001), around the so-called 'basic variety' (Klein & Perdue, 1997), right up to the advanced, quasi-bilingual stage (cf. Carroll & von Stutterheim, 1993, 1997; Lambert, 1997; Watorek & Perdue, 1999).

We are interested in the recurrent phenomena attested in these studies, namely the 'idiosyncratic' productions (cf. Corder, 1967, 1971) that characterise early stages on the way to the TL, and the 'grammatical' but nonetheless inappropriate (or 'unfluent') productions characterising the very advanced stages (cf. Bartning, 1997). We start by outlining the particularities of the 'learner variety' approach, before summarising some results from the studies cited above.

The 'Learner Variety' Approach

We draw on some results from a large body of empirical work undertaken from a functional, longitudinal and cross-linguistic perspective, which takes into account both communicative factors 'pushing' acquisition and structural factors 'shaping' it, in an attempt to explain the process of acquisition. In general terms, the cognitive and linguistic predisposition of the learner interacts with the formal characteristics of the L2 input in shaping the acquisition process, but a further set of factors – communicative factors – intervenes in pushing the learner to acquire the L2.

Two recurrent phenomena will be of interest in the following section: the type of utterance the learner constructs in order to convey her/his meaning, and the orders of acquisition reported. First, we have a fresh look at an old acquisitional chestnut, 'aspect before tense', and then at learners' utterance patterns and use of anaphoric devices in the construction of descriptive discourse.

Communicative factors

The type of communicative factors of interest here are those intervening in the learner/user's need to express recurrent relational meanings between items of vocabulary that languages grammaticalise to a greater or lesser extent – for brevity we will call these '(grammatical) functions' – relations such as assertion, temporal reference and determination. Such functions are numerous (but not unlimited), and the ones mentioned involve the interaction of sentence grammar, discourse grammar and context-relating rules. There is little reason to assume that they are all equally important for the learner when communicating. The relative communicative importance of expressing such functions is thus held to be a determining factor for acquisition. Another communicative factor of relevance to the examples below is Levelt's (1981) 'linearisation problem', that of arranging the information for production in temporal order, between utterances and within each utterance. Some of the principles underlying the speaker's linearisation of information will be discussed in more detail in the section below.

Formal factors

Languages develop devices to express grammatical functions to different degrees of specification – one speaks for example of 'aspect-prominent languages' as opposed to 'tense-prominent languages'. Different languages therefore give different formal priorities to functions which are nevertheless shared (temporal reference is accomplished in aspect-prominent languages, and vice versa). The learner who by virtue of her SL competence understands how to apply these functions, has to find some means of expressing them in the TL. It is therefore necessary to understand which are the linguistic means used at first, and how the means used for expressing a particular function change – and possibly grow more complex – over time. Note that the grammatical organisation of the SL, or characteristics of the TL input, individually or in tandem, may make certain aspects of the input highly salient, and others less so.

The very mention of 'communicative factors' reveals that we are interested in the learners' real-time communicative activity (restricted to language production in this chapter). The analyst attempts to retrace over time how the learner succeeds, or does not succeed, in the communicative task s/he is engaged in, and this reconstruction allows one to identify what the learning problem was at any given time during the acquisition process. The acquisitionist therefore looks first at the way the learner's linguistic repertoire is organised at a given moment, how this repertoire is put to use in particular communicative tasks, and how the repertoire changes over time in respect to the same tasks. Acquisition and use – or rather, use and acquisition – are therefore not dissociated. The object of investigation is the L2 learner/user. We further assume, for argument's sake, that real-time communicative activity forms part of the goals of any L2 learner, be s/he an adult economic immigrant (2.1), or a university student of a foreign language (2.2).

'Idiosyncratic' Utterances

We look in this section at an old debate in acquisitional studies: whether temporal or aspectual distinctions are acquired first – but with the difference (from some published studies) that the expressive means analysed (the 'alternatives of expression') are not limited to verbal morphology. By 'aspect' we mean grammatical aspect, which we define following Klein's (1994) model.

Klein defines tense and aspect by appealing to a semantic function of finiteness. Finiteness is traditionally associated with the morphosyntactic categories of person and tense. However, Klein distinguishes between the concept of finiteness and the way languages mark it. The European languages typically mark finiteness by verb morphology – one speaks of finite versus non-finite verb forms – but such is not the case for a language like Chinese, for example (see Klein, Li & Hendriks, 2000), nor – and this is of immediate concern – for early learner varieties.

The semantic function of finiteness involves the speaker's claim about a time span. Klein (1998: 227) illustrates this with the following example:

(1) The book WAS on the table.

In this example, WAS is marked by contrastive stress, and the contrast can involve either the time-span ('the book WAS on the table, but isn't any longer'), or the claim ('you said it wasn't, but in fact the book WAS on the table'). Klein (1994) calls the time span for which the speaker makes a claim the 'topic time' (TT), in contrast to the time of situation (TSit), i.e. the interval occupied on the time axis by the situation talked about. The notional category of tense then expresses the relation of TT to the deictically given time of utterance (TU), and the notional category of grammatical aspect expresses the relation between TT and TSit. Starren (2001) uses the metaphor of the video camera to explain TT – it is the time the camera is 'shooting'. Imagine you are a witness in court, and the judge asks you, 'What did you see when you entered the room?' The crucial time span corresponds to your entering the room, and just this time span is filmed by the camera. You answer, 'A man was trying to open the safe. He looked Japanese.' The time span occupied by 'man trying to open safe', and indeed the time span occupied by 'man looked Japanese' – the 'situation times'- are considerably longer than it took you to enter the room. It would indeed be surprising if the man did not still look Japanese as you speak. But this was not what you were asked. The TT is your entering the room, and your, and the judge's, use of past tense puts this TT (but not necessarily the TSit) before the time of utterance. The time of the action of trying to open the safe, TSit, encompasses the TT. This aspectual relation is imperfective, and explains the use of the past progressive aspect in your answer.

Imperfective aspect contrasts with perfective aspect, where TSit is within, or coincides with, TT; this coincidence of TT and TSit is found in subdistinctions of perfectivity such as habituality or continuity. Two further grammatical aspectual distinctions may be drawn: prospective, where the topic time is in the 'pre-state' of the situation time (TT < TSit), or perfect, where topic time is in the 'post-state' of an event (TT > TSit). The crucial distinction between perfective aspect, on the one hand, and the others is that perfective aspect shows no dissociation between TT and TSit, whereas the others do.

Right from the beginning of the acquisition process, it is necessary for an adult to express temporal relations. These relations can be inferred from discourse organisation principles, or simply left implicit, in which case the relation is by default contemporaneous with the moment of speech. Very early learner varieties ('basic varieties') have as a defining characteristic that they completely lack the usual grammatical means to express tense and aspect, as they are devoid of morphological marking. (Adult) learners nevertheless manage to produce sophisticated temporal structures in their discourse with the means available, which allow the specification of some time span and certain relations between time spans. What elementary learners do at the beginning of their discourse is establish an initial TT, either: implicitly, by taking over the time proposed by the interlocutor or using the time of utterance (TU) as a default case; or: explicitly, by means of an utterance-initial adverb, as in (2a). This initial TT serves as a point of departure, and is maintained or shifted, depending on the type of discourse. If it is shifted (as in a narrative, for example), then this shifted time may be marked by an initial anaphoric adverb, as in (2b), or follows on from discourse-organisational principles such as the principle of natural order (PNO, Clark, 1971), whereby events are recounted in the order in which they occur.

(2) (a) SF: Gloria aujourd'hui ici + quatre familles 'today, there are four families here'

(b) MF: Abdel après + avec la police 'afterwards, the police arrived'

As we see, the utterance-initial adverb, in bold type in the examples, specifies the TT of the (rather minimally expressed) state of affairs of the utterance. Starren (2001) analyses the many early productions of Moroccan learners of L2 French from the ESF corpus (Perdue, 1984), and finds a regular use of a second adverb of time (underlined in the examples), specifying the time span filled by the state of affairs, i.e. TSit:

(3) (a) MF: Zahra toujours moi [fe] la cuisine ce soir 'always me make the cooking this ( = in the) evening'

(b) MF: Zahra toujours il [fe] la crise chaque jour 'always he has his crisis every day'

(c) MF: Abdel hier le capitaine bateau toujours [regarde] 'yesterday the captain the ship always look'

(d) MF: Zahra quand [lepeti] toujours malade 'when (he was) little (he was) always ill'

Starren's analysis of many such early utterances allows a distinction to be drawn between the aspectual values of habituality and continuity, by the interplay of adverbs denoting TT and TSit. For habituality, as in (3)a, b: for all the subintervals of toujours, I cook in the evening (3a), or he has his crisis each day (36); (3c), which contains an activity verb, expresses continuity (the time span yesterday is filled by the activity of supervising); and (3d), which expresses a state, also expresses continuity (the time span when little was filled by his being ill). Thus even at this basic level, it is possible to make some aspectual distinctions, by means of an adverb distribution which owes nothing to the specifics of either SL or TL organisation. The utterances of (3) are truly idiosyncratic in the sense that the adverb distribution of toujours cannot be unequivocally traced either to SL or to the TL.

It is worth devoting a paragraph to the word 'unequivocally' of the previous sentence. As a reviewer rightly pointed out, the language pairing of (3) is Moroccan Arabic-French; in this language pairing it would be possible to appeal to certain distributional facts of Moroccan to explain the functioning of toujours in these examples. However, this is less possible for Turkish, the other L1 studied by Starren: learners of Dutch with Moroccan and Turkish as a L1 show the same use of these adverbials. Moreover, the same distribution can be found in the production of Spanish-speaking learners of French, with other temporal adverbs. The following is an extract from a conversation between Bernarda and a native speaker (NS), whose theme is when Bernarda works in a canteen:

(4) NS: ça c'était à midi 'that was midday'

BE: à midi non + à midi [nepa] moi la cuisine (...) à midi [se] un garçon la cuisine 'midday no midday isanot me the kitchen( ... ) midday isa a man the kitchen

NS: et en septembre? 'and in September?'

BE: en septembre [se] moi à midi [asoesoir] 'in September isa me midday (and) evening'

NS: et en octobre? 'and in October?'

BE: seulement [asoesoir] 'only evening'

The general regularity is therefore the following: an adverb denoting TT in utterance-initial position has scope over the adverb denoting TSit, which is placed close to the expression denoting the situation. What we have is a more or less direct reflection of the way information structure is reflected by linguistic structure – the source language pulling more or less in the same direction – and the hypothesis is that the more direct this reflection is, the more 'language-neutral' (Kellerman, 1987) the structure is (implicitly) judged to be by learners, and the more they will have recourse to it. We have, perhaps, a syntactic reflection of Kellerman's 'psychotypology', which he himself fleshed out for idioms and lexical items.

Starren (2001) goes further: she also shows that the major communicative limitation of the above interplay of adverbs is that it does not alone suffice to dissociate TT and TSit. Learners thus cannot focus on the pre-state of an event (prospective: TT < TSit) or the post-state of an event (perfect: TT > TSit). In order to be able to do this, learners must go beyond the basic variety and develop a verbal morphology which allows for the independent specification of TT.

The overall picture that emerges from Starren's study is of a developing system which first allows temporal relations to be marked by discourse means and simple adverbs, through a stage where finer temporal distinctions can be expressed through the interplay of adverbs marking both TT and TSit, in conjunction with the internal temporal characteristics of the event denoted in the utterance, to the development of verbal morphology which alone allows TT and TSit to become dissociated, and grammatical aspect expressed. Temporal reference is achieved before the first aspectual distinctions within perfectivity, and for aspect to become fully productive, some verbal morphology must be acquired. But 'tense before aspect' is a spin-off from the main question Starren is asking, which is: 'What temporal functions can be expressed by the learner's repertoire at a given time?'

This study may be compared to that of Benazzo (2000), who examined the use of additive and restrictive scope particles in English, French and German L2 in longitudinal data from the ESF corpus. She also looked closely at temporal adverbs expressing iteration and at temporal adverbs of contrast, and found that adverbs marking the iteration of an event (encore [une fois], and translation equivalents in the other languages) are used before temporal adverbs of contrast ('TACs': déjà, encore). TACs only appear at relatively advanced stages, when verbal morphology has been acquired.


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Table of Contents

Preface, vii,
1 Psycholinguistic Studies on the Acquisition of French as a Second Language: The 'Learner Variety' Approach Marzena Watorek and Clive Perdue, 1,
2 Discourse Structuring in Advanced L2 French: The Relative Clause Victorine Hancock and Nathalie Kirchmeyer, 17,
3 Adverbs and Functional Categories in L1 and L2 Acquisition of French Suzanne Schlyter, 36,
4 The Emergence and Use of the Plus-Que-Parfait in Advanced French Interlanguage Martin Howard, 63,
5 The Emergence of Morpho-syntactic Structure in French L2 Florence Myles, 88,
6 Syntactic and Semantic Issues in the Acquisition of Negation in French Daniel Véronique, 114,
7 Gender and Number in French L2: Can We Find Out More About the Constraints on Production in L2? Mireille Prodeau, 135,
8 The Development of Gender Attribution and Gender Agreement in French: A Comparison of Bilingual First and Second Language Learners Jonas Granfeldt, 164,
9 From Speech Community Back to Classroom: What Variation Analysis Can Tell Us About the Role of Context in the Acquisition of French as a Foreign Language Vera Regan, 191,
10 The Role of Psycholinguistic Factors in the Development of Fluency Amongst Advanced Learners of French Richard Towell and Jean-Marc Dewaele, 210,
Index, 240,

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