With regard to first language development, there are numerous studies showing a strong relationship between literacy and metalinguistic awareness. In particular, there is considerable evidence that phonemic awareness, that is, the ability to segment words into phonemes, is a consequence of acquiring an alphabetic writing system. Illiterates and pre-literates have been shown to do very poorly on phoneme segmentation tasks, such as adding or deleting a single consonant at the beginning of a word, or naming words beginning with the same consonant. However, they have no problems with phonological tasks involving larger units, such as syllables or rhymes (Adrián et al. 1995
; Dellatolas et al. 2003
; Kolinsky et al. 1987
; Kurvers et al. 2006
; Morais et al. 1979
; Read et al. 1986
). There is also evidence that being literate is strongly related to how speech is processed. We know, for example, that illiterates have difficulty repeating pseudowords, and often substitute them with real words (Castro-Caldas et al. 1998
; Reis and Castro-Caldas 1997
). There is also evidence that literates and illiterates have different patterns of brain activation when repeating pseudowords, although, interestingly, not when repeating real words (Castro-Caldas et al. 1998
). Other research shows that illiterate speakers process speech more slowly than literate speakers (Huettig et al. 2011
There is also evidence to suggest that literacy is strongly related to metalinguistic awareness of other aspects of L1 development. Karanth et al.
), for example, compared school-going and non school-going children and literate and illiterate speakers of Kannada on grammaticality judgment and syntactic comprehension tasks. Their results show that development of literacy improves performance on these tasks. Havron et al.
) explored the impact of literacy acquisition on children’s learning of an artificial language. In particular, they compared children’s success in learning novel noun labels (e.g., keba
‘chair’) relative to their success in learning article-noun gender agreement (e.g., do
(spoon)), before and after the children had learned to read. The researchers found that prior to becoming literate the children were better at learning agreement than at learning nouns, and that the difference between these significantly decreased after the children acquired literacy. These findings suggest that literacy affects not only language processing, but also leads to important differences in language learning. That is, being literate allows children to attend to smaller sized units.
Duncan et al.
) conducted a cross-linguistic comparison of metalinguistic development in French and English. The researchers examined early ability to manipulate derivational suffixes in oral language games as a function of chronological age, receptive vocabulary, and year of schooling. The researchers provide data from judgment and production tasks for children aged between 5 and 8 years in their first, second, or third school year in the United Kingdom and France. The results suggest that metamorphological development is accelerated in French relative to English. Part of the explanation for the French advantage encompasses knowledge of a broader range of suffixes and a markedly greater facility for generalizing morphological knowledge to novel contexts. The researchers interpreted the findings in relation to the word formation systems of English and French, and the educational context in each country.
Nunes et al.
) provide evidence that literacy affects learners’ knowledge of morphemes. The researchers undertook two large-scale longitudinal studies. In the first study, children’s success in spelling the inflection at the end of regular past verbs (e.g., jumped
rather than jumpt
) predicted their performance in two morphological awareness tasks a year later (e.g., ability to transform noun to adjectives, noun to verbs). In the second study, the children’s consistency in spelling morphemes predicted their ability to define new words on the basis of their morphemic structure (e.g., lugged
as a verb, lugginess
as a noun). Nunes et al.’s explanation for these findings is that the spelling of many words depends on their morphemic structure. Therefore, children have to have some knowledge about morphemes in order to learn to read and write and as such children gain much of their explicit knowledge about morphemes as a direct result of learning to read and to spell.
With regard to the relationship between literacy and metalinguistic development in L2, Kurvers
), for example, compared the performance of three groups (unschooled adults, low-educated literate adults, and pre-school children) from various L1 backgrounds learning Dutch as a second language on different aspects of metalinguistic awareness, including syllable awareness, rhyme awareness, word awareness, and word and sentence segmentation. The non-literate adults were illiterate both in their L1 and L2, while the low-educated adults had no more than six years of schooling in their L1. The children were in the last term of kindergarten. The results show significant differences between the literate and non-literate adult groups, and between the literate adults and the children. However, that was not the case between the non-literate adults and the children on the majority of tasks. In fact, on some measures, including rhyme, word segmentation, and word referent differentiation tasks, the non-literate adults exhibited more difficulties than the pre-schoolers.
Several studies (Becker et al. 1977
; Clahsen 1980
; Clahsen et al. 1983
; Meisel et al. 1981
; Pienemann 1980
; Tarone et al. 2009
) have found that certain participants, typically those with the lowest literacy levels, are much more likely to omit obligatory main verbs, grammatical markers of tense, as well as other grammatical morphemes, compared to higher-literacy participants. This is an indication that literacy is also a key factor in the development of linguistic competence in the L2. Becker et al.
), for example, employed directed conversation techniques to elicit oral data from 48 L1 Spanish and Italian learners of L2 German who varied in period of residence from up to 2 years to over 6 years. On the basis of 100 successive utterances produced by each learner, the participants were categorized into four proficiency groups. The researchers found that the lowest group produced utterances without a finite element, a main verb or a subject. The data also showed that the lower literate learners differed in their development of morphosyntax compared to the more educated learners: for example, they overgeneralized the modal verb muss
to mark tense. Van de Craats and colleagues (Julien et al. 2013
; Van de Craats and Van Hout 2010
) have found a similar pattern of overgeneralization, in this case of Dutch auxiliaries zijn
‘be’ and gaan
‘go’, to mark tense in their Dutch corpus of low-educated adult immigrants’ oral production.
); Clahsen et al.
); Meisel et al.
); and Pienemann
) report data from both longitudinal and cross-sectional studies (known as the ZISA
projects). These studies were designed to investigate the development of word order in L2 German by uninstructed adult foreign workers with various L1s, namely: Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. The researchers found evidence to suggest that L2 language learners follow the same developmental stages, regardless of the L1. They also found large individual differences between participants who produced obligatory, though semantically redundant, grammatical morphemes, such as subject pronouns, modal and auxiliary verbs, prepositions and determiners, and participants who omitted these features. Unfortunately, the researchers did not say why this might be. Data regarding participants’ education was collected, so we know that different participants had very different levels of education. However, this data was not correlated with the presence/absence of obligatory grammatical features. And there was no measure of literacy level for any participants. However, given the different levels of education, it is very likely that the participants also had very different levels of L1 literacy when they entered Germany. It is, therefore, plausible, particularly given findings from other studies, that the different amounts of obligatory morphosyntactic features produced by the participants in the ZISA
projects were related to participants’ level of education/literacy. This relationship has been directly addressed by more recent studies.
In Experiment 3 of Tarone et al.
), for example, the researchers employed a series of picture description tasks designed to elicit various aspects of morphosyntax, including both verbal (e.g., auxiliary be
, progressive -ing
, third person singular present tense -s
, and past tense -ed
) and nominal (e.g., plural -s
) morphology. Participants were 35 Somali L1 learners of L2 English, who were divided into a low-literacy and a moderate-literacy group after taking the SPEAK (Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit 1982
) test. The authors found that the low literacy group omitted obligatory verbal morphology 64% of the time (range: 55–77%), while in the moderate literacy group such errors occurred in 50% of obligatory contexts (range: 38–58%).
There are several possible explanations for the observed differences between literate and less-literate language learners. First, it is possible that low literacy language learners are less familiar with the classroom learning context and consequently find it difficult to learn in such a setting. Second, it is possible that the written form supports learning by providing a permanent, objective representation of the target language and allowing literate language learners to process target language utterances at their own pace. Third, learning to read and write results in improved metalinguistic abilities and thus facilitates attention to form. The above are not mutually exclusive and it is most likely the case that all three are contributing factors. However, in the present study, we focus specifically on the third possibility; that being literate supports acquisition by enhancing the ability to attend to form. To do so, we study a group of L1 Albanian speakers who differ considerably in the amount of schooling they have had in their L1, and who learned L2 Greek as adults in naturalistic contexts.
In addition to testing the role of literacy on L2 attainment, we also test a second predictor variable, namely input. Input clearly plays a crucial role in both L1 and L2 language acquisition. However, the extent to which input affects ultimate L2 language attainment is a matter of some controversy. Some researchers (e.g., Flege 2009
) have proposed that the differences in outcome between L1 and L2 acquisition depend largely on the quality and quantity of the input. However, numerous other researchers (e.g., Birdsong 2006
; Birdsong and Molis 2001
; DeKeyser et al. 2010
; Johnson and Newport 1989
) argue that the effects of input are overshadowed by age of acquisition effects. Therefore, the failure of (most) adult L2 learners to acquire a native-like competence is best explained by postulating a critical period for language. Whatever stand one takes in this controversy, it is clear that acquiring a high level of proficiency requires a large amount of input. For example, Hartshorne et al.
) found that native speaker’s performance on a test tapping knowledge of a variety of grammatical structures continues to increase up to about age 30. Furthermore, their data also suggests that L2 immersion learners continue to improve for up to 30 years post-arrival, in sharp contrast to most ultimate attainment studies which assume that learners reach a steady state after about five years.
Since this is an exploratory study, we examine a variety of linguistic measures. First, we analyzed spontaneous speech samples to obtain more measures of fluency, grammatical complexity, and lexical richness. In addition, we conducted elicitation tasks, which probed the L2 speakers’ mastery of gender and number agreement in the noun phrase and the ability to produce perfective past tense forms. Such obligatory yet largely redundant grammatical markers have been repeatedly shown to be particularly difficult for L2 learners, even in English with its relatively impoverished morphology.
Both of the Greek subsystems that we investigate are relatively complex. With regard to agreement marking, both determiners and adjectives have to agree with the head noun in gender (masculine, feminine or neuter), number (singular or plural) and case (nominative, genitive, accusative or vocative), and there are several subclasses of adjectives which require different endings. Verbal inflections are even more complex. Verbs are marked for person, number, tense, voice, aspect, and mood, and the formation of a particular form typically involves both affixation and stem changes. Consider, for example, the present tense form gráfo ‘I write’ and the corresponding perfective past tense form égrapsa ‘I wrote’. The formation of the past tense involves the following processes:
adding the prefix e- (added to monosyllabic stems beginning with a consonant);
a stem change (f > p);
insertion of the suffix -s-;
addition of the first person singular perfective past tense ending -a.
The verb gráfo
is a so-called sigmatic, or regular verb, so in this case the stem changes are phonologically predictable. In addition to sigmatic verbs, Greek has a number of classes of non-sigmatic, or irregular, verbs, which involve more idiosyncratic stem changes (for details, see Holton et al. 2004
Our central aim was to establish the extent to which fluency, grammatical complexity and accuracy and lexical knowledge are predicted by literacy (operationalized as the number of years in full-time schooling) and input (operationalized as length of residence), as well as examining any possible interactions between these two factors. We expected that both education and input would predict L2 achievement. However, we predicted that education would be particularly relevant for the acquisition of “decorative” grammar, i.e., those aspects of grammar that contribute relatively little to meaning, and particularly when these are complex and/or irregular. That is to say, we predicted a stronger relationship between education on the one hand and agreement marking and especially past tense marking on the other. By contrast, input should be a better predictor for fluency measures.
4. General Discussion and Conclusions
In this paper we examined L2 acquisition by adult naturalistic learners of Greek as a second language, focusing in particular on the role of education (operationalized as number of years spent in full time education) and exposure (operationalized as length of residence in Greece). We anticipated that both factors would contribute to L2 attainment, but in different ways. We hypothesized that higher educational attainment would facilitate attention to form, and thus be most relevant to the acquisition of “decorative” morphology (grammatical markers whose contribution to meaning is largely redundant), particularly those aspects which are relatively complex and/or irregular. This prediction was largely confirmed: education accounted for just over 2% of the variance on plural determiner agreement, 15% of the variance on plural adjective agreement, and for between 31% and 38% of the variance in performance on past tense morphology, which is considerably more complex. We found no significant effect of education on singular determiner agreement or singular adjective agreement. This, however, was most likely due to ceiling effects, as performance on these measures was 91% and 87% correct respectively. Fluency, in contrast, was predicted by length of residence but not by education. This is most likely the case because it depends (almost) entirely on implicit learning, which is not associated with education, whereas the acquisition of “decorative” grammar has a strong explicit component, at least in adult learners.
The absence of a relationship between length of residence and performance on “decorative” morphology suggests that our participants fossilized at a non-target-like level. Inflectional morphemes such as agreement and past tense markers, which are largely redundant from a semantic point of view, are known to be difficult for L2 learners, and are among the structures that are most likely to fossilize (Han 2013
). Interestingly, our results showed a clear difference between agreement and tense marking in this respect. As explained earlier, agreement marking in Greek is comparatively simple. Children acquiring Greek as a first language typically master agreement morphology in the preschool years (Diamanti et al. 2018
; Koromvokis and Kalaitzidis 2013
). Our learners also attained relatively high levels of performance, with means ranging from 78% correct on plural adjective agreement to 91% correct on singular determiner agreement, and a relatively high proportion of participants performing at ceiling. In fact, for each of the four agreement measures, more than half of the participants with 9 or more years of schooling achieved a perfect score. In the less educated group, the number of participants performing at ceiling was lower, ranging from 21% on the most difficult task, adjective plural agreement, to 58% on singular determiners. Thus, our results indicate that it is possible even for low-educated naturalistic adult learners to attain native-like levels of performance in this area.
Past tense marking in Greek is considerably more complex, and our participants’ performance on tense marking tasks was much poorer: 55% correct on existing sigmatic, 38% on existing nonsigmatic and 23% on nonce verbs, with no participant performing at ceiling in any condition. Furthermore, more than a third of our participants, and almost two-thirds of those with no more than eight years of schooling, failed to produce a single target form on the nonce verb inflection task. Since we used the same test as Stavrakaki and Clahsen
) and Clahsen et al.
), we can directly compare our results with theirs. It is striking that even the youngest L1 learners tested by Stavrakaki and Clahsen
), who were aged between 3 and 4, performed better than our participants: the scores in this age group were 70%, 36% and 39% respectively in these three tasks. Clahsen et al.
) used the same test with highly educated instructed learners with a much shorter length of residence (from 2.3 to 6.8 years), and this group did much better than our participants, achieving scores of 90% on existing sigmatic verbs, 66% on existing nonsigmatic verbs, and 76% on non-rhyming nonce verbs. These results suggest that for complex inflectional systems such as the Greek past tense, explicit instruction appears to be necessary for adult learners to acquire the system.
It should be stressed, however, that while there was evidence of fossilization in some areas, other aspects of language continued to develop for a long time after arrival. This is most noticeable on measures of fluency and clausal density, but as we have seen, length of residence was also positively correlated with performance on determiner plural agreement, particularly in the less educated participants. This supports Han’s
) claim that fossilization is highly selective, both at the level of individual structures and the individual learner. In fact, perhaps the most striking finding from our study is the extent of individual differences in attainment in our group of long-resident L2 learners. As we have seen, there was considerable variation in performance on all tasks: for example, for existing past non-sigmatic verbs, individual scores ranged from 0% to 90% correct, and for plural determiner and adjective agreement, from 44% to 100%. The two factors we focused on here, education and length of residence, account for only a relatively small proportion of the variance in scores. Future research will need to examine the role of other factors such as age of arrival, frequency of interaction with native speakers, language aptitude, and motivation.