Chinese speakers' acquisition of English conditionals: Acquisition order and L1 transfer effects

Chou, Chen-Ling
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This study examines how the syntactic complexity of English conditionals and first language transfer influence Chinese ESL learners’ acquisition order of conditionals. The differences in English and Chinese conditional constructions are presented in the paper. Brown’s (1973) Cumulative Complexity principle is employed to determine the syntactic complexity of six conditionals: present factual, past factual, future predictive, present counterfactual, past counterfactual, and mixed-time-reference counterfactual conditional. O’Grady’s (1997) Developmental Law is used as the theoretical framework for predicting the acquisition orders of the if-clause and the main clause of English conditionals. A written cloze test simulating oral conversations is used to elicit the production of English conditionals from 20 native-speakers of English and 36 adult Chinese speakers, and the answers from both groups are compared. The results of Chinese participants’ production did not support the predicted acquisition orders in the research hypotheses. Nor could the implicational scaling of acquisition order be established due to the low reproducibility. The results of a two-way repeated-measures ANOVA show an interaction of the conditional type and clause type factors. Moreover, systematic variations in the learners’ production provide evidence of L1 transfer effects, such as an over-production of certain forms, and a preference for smallest rule changes in the passage from one developmental stage to the next one. It is important to be aware of how these L1 transfer effects interact with the syntactic complexity factor in Chinese participants’ production of English conditionals, so better instruction of English conditionals can be achieved.
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