In these days of mass migration, many people learn a brand new language at a later age. This is not easy: Languages have both similarities and differences in the sentence structures with which they express particular meanings. For instance, the Dutch and French active sentences are similar in both languages (Le chat chasse la souris - De kat jaagt op de muis [The cat cases the mouse]), but Dutch has three different forms for the full passive sentence, whereas French has only one (La souris est chassée par le chat). How do learners deal with this?
Previous research suggests that bilinguals share information about sentence structure across their languages, whenever these structures are similar enough. Hartsuiker and Bernolet (2017) proposed a developmental model for second language syntax in which learners go through several consecutive learning stages before they share syntax between languages. The challenging aspect is our goal to test that theory in ecologically valid settings. More specifically, we investigate the influence of immersion in the L2 and of knowledge of related languages on the development and the representation of Dutch syntax in students who learn Dutch as a foreign language. Additionally, we investigate whether and how syntactic priming experiments can aid the develoment of native-like production preferences in Dutch as an L2.
All studies in the project use syntactic priming as a tool (Branigan & Pickering, 2017): all sentences that need to be produced or comprehended are preceded by a prime sentence with the same or a competing syntactic structure. If a prime structure is represented in memory, it will influence the production and the comprehension of the upcoming sentence, within and across languages. We will investigate the syntactic representations in different speakers of Dutch: 1) Flemish students with Dutch as their only native language; 2) Walloon students who learned Dutch at the age of 10; 3) first generation immigrants learning Dutch as their first or second Indo-European language. The first production study compares groups 1 and 2. We investigate the representation of Dutch syntactic structures that lack a similar counterpart in the learners' native language (French) and we compare the production preferences for Walloon learners of Dutch living inan immersion context with the preferences of learners living in a monolingual French context. The second study investigates how we can boost the production of Dutch syntactic structures that are dispreferred due to influence of a native language. Studies 3 is a longitudinal study that explores the differences between the learning trajectories for Dutch syntax in native Arabic speakers who learn Dutch as their first or second Indo-European language (after English).
By documenting the different stages in L2 syntactic development with actual learner data, this project will have a strong impact on both the psychology of language and on second language acquisition research. Additionally, this project will provide valuable information on the learning trajectory for Dutch syntax, more specifically on the influence of native language syntax, and on the effects of immersion, knowledge of related languages and specific training on the development and the final representation of Dutch syntax. Hence, the project outcome will be relevant to teachers and trainers of Dutch as a foreign language.