Negative evidence in L2 acquisition


  • Anne Dahl Department of Language and Linguistics, CASTL, University of Tromsø



Learnability, second language acquisition, advanced learners, acceptability hierarchy, grammaticality judgments, English language, Norwegian language, passive constructions


This article deals with the L2 acquisition of differences between Norwegian and English passives, and presents data to show that the acquisition of these differences by Norwegian L2 acquirers of English cannot be fully explained by positive evidence, cues, conservativism or economy. Rather, it is argued, it is natural to consider whether indirect negative evidence may facilitate acquisition by inferencing. The structures in focus are impersonal passive constructions with postverbal NPs and passive constructions with intransitive verbs. These sentences are ungrammatical in English. Chomsky (1981) proposes that this is a result of passive morphology absorbing objective case in English. There is no such case to be assigned to the postverbal NP in impersonal passives. In passive constructions with intransitive verbs, the verb does not assign objective case, so that there is no case for the passive morphology to absorb. Thus, impersonal passives have to be changed into personal passives, where the NP receives nominative case, and the objective case is free to go to the passive morphology. Intransitive verbs, however, cannot be used in the passive voice at all. Both the structures discussed in this article, i.e. are grammatical in Norwegian. However, the options available in English, viz. personal passives and active sentences, are equally possible. Åfarli (1992) therefore proposes that Norwegian has optional case absorption (passive morphology optionally absorbs case). On the basis on such observations, we may propose a parameter with the settings [+case absorption] for English, and [-case absorption], signifying optional case absorption, for Norwegian. This means that none of the structures that are grammatical in English can function as positive evidence for the [+case absorption] setting, since they are also grammatical in optional case absorption languages. The question is how this parameter is set.