The role of universal grammar in second language acquisition: Explaining variability of verb placement in L2 German

Susanne Nimmrichter, University of Pennsylvania


This study addressed two controversial issues regarding the acquisition of verb placement in German as a second language and the role of Universal Grammar (UG) in this process. The issues are variability between targetlike and target-deviant verb placement, even among advanced learners, and the absence of demonstrated cluster effects for the parameters involved in verb placement. Variability of verb placement was addressed through two hypotheses. Hypothesis (1) tested the effects on verb placement in the main clause if (a) the clause-initial constituent is an adjunct rather than an argument of the verb; (b) the subject is a full noun phrase rather than a pronoun; and (c) the finite verb is an auxiliary or a main verb. Hypothesis (2) tested the effect of the type of embedding as complement clause or as adjunct clause on verb placement in the embedded clause. Cluster effects were addressed through two hypotheses based on the standard analysis of German. Hypothesis (3) predicted that the development of verb placement in the main clause and in the embedded clause would be correlated as would be expected if they were both generated by the same underlying, grammar. Hypothesis (4) predicted that learners who have acquired targetlike verb placement would have knowledge of constraints on subject placement. To test these hypotheses, data were collected from seventeen low intermediate to advanced learners of German as a foreign language, as they performed four sentence elicitation, free production, and grammaticality judgment tasks. All hypotheses with the exception of (1c) were supported. The results suggest that second language learners go through a phase when the target grammar is in competition with a non-target grammar. During the subsequent phase, the non-target grammar is replaced by the target grammar. Remaining errors are limited to adjunction structures. Only learners who do not allow such target-deviant adjunction structures have acquired the true German Verb Second grammar, as evidenced by their knowledge of constraints on the subject position. The study thus provides a UG based explanation for the variability problem as well as empirical evidence for the postulated parameters based on the observed clustering effects.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Language arts

Recommended Citation

Nimmrichter, Susanne, "The role of universal grammar in second language acquisition: Explaining variability of verb placement in L2 German" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9727270.