The acquisition of ser and estar by nonnative speakers of Spanish

Gregory Gene Briscoe, University of Pennsylvania


The acquisition of the copula verbs ser and estar presents a unique challenge to non-native speakers of Spanish who are learning it as a foreign language. This problem is examined from the perspective of the acquisition of purely semantic distinctions between ser and estar, as well as the acquisition of the extra-semantic, or structural components associated with the various uses of ser and estar. In order to better understand the acquisition of ser and estar, acquisition orders were determined for both semantic and structural acquisition. These orders were determined on the basis of student responses prompted from a picture-based oral story-telling activity. All subjects in the study were undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall semester of 1991, ranging from first semester Spanish students to advanced Spanish majors. A total of seventy-seven student volunteers participated in the study. In terms of semantic acquisition the results clearly show that several ser functions are acquired before any estar functions are. Among the possible reasons for this early ser preference are (1) several ser functions are acquired early because they are learned as formulas, (2) analogy occurs between es and is, (3) the distinctiveness of form of the ser paradigm, (4) the distinctive semantic messages associated with several ser functions, (5) semantic analogy occurring between ser and to be, and (6) lack of contrast between early acquired ser functions and estar functions. The main factor governing structural acquisition is the relative structural complexity of a given function. The greater the degree of complexity, the more likely that such a function will be acquired later. The results of the study suggest that certain techniques may be applied to the instruction of ser and estar to facilitate and possibly accelerate their acquisition. However, the findings have established that definite orders of acquisition exist that must be passed through, notwithstanding the pedagogical approach that ones applies to ser and estar.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Language|Language arts

Recommended Citation

Briscoe, Gregory Gene, "The acquisition of ser and estar by nonnative speakers of Spanish" (1995). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9532145.