Skip to main content


  • Eve Zyzik (a1)

This article examines alternating verbs (such as quemar(se) “to burn”) in second language (L2) Spanish by considering the learnability problem from a sequence learning perspective (N. Ellis, 1996, 2002). In Spanish, verbs of the alternating class are obligatorily marked with the clitic se in their intransitive form. Errors of omission among English-speaking learners, who transfer zero-derived morphology from their native language, have been previously documented (Montrul, 2000). This study also examines a different kind of error—overgeneralization of se to transitive event scenes—that is hypothesized to result from chunking se with particular lexical items. The results of a picture description task reveal that learners frequently make this type of overgeneralization error, but that they are able to recover from it at more advanced levels of proficiency. These findings suggest that the acquisition of L2 morphosyntax is shaped by learners' familiarity with individual lexical items and the sequences in which they tend to appear.This study forms part of my dissertation research and was presented at AAAL in Portland, Oregon, in May 2004. I acknowledge the generous support of the University of California, Davis and the Humanities Research Grant that allowed me to conduct this research. I wish to thank Robert Blake for his guidance during the data collection phase of the project, Susan Gass and Charlene Polio for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article, and Lourdes Sánchez González for helping me collect the native-speaker data. The comments and suggestions of three anonymous SSLA reviewers were also tremendously useful. All remaining errors are my own. %Address correspondence to Eve Zyzik, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Michigan State University, 334 Old Horticulture Building, East Lansing, MI 48824; e-mail:

Corresponding author
Eve Zyzik, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Michigan State University, 334 Old Horticulture Building, East Lansing, MI 48824; e-mail:
Hide All


Aid, F. (1973). Semantic structures in Spanish: A proposal for instructional materials. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Andersen, R.W. (1990). Models, processes, principles and strategies: Second language acquisition inside and outside of the classroom. In B. VanPatten & J. F. Lee (Eds.), Second language acquisition: Foreign language learning (pp. 4568). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Andersen, R.W. & Shirai, Y. (1994). Discourse motivations for some cognitive acquisition principles. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, 133156.
Bates, E. & MacWhinney, B. (1982). Functionalist approaches to grammar. In E. Wanner & L. R. Gleitman (Eds.), Language acquisition: The state of the art (pp. 173218). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Berman, R.A. (1993). Marking of verb transitivity by Hebrew-speaking children. Journal of Child Language, 20, 641669.
Berman, R.A. (1994). Developmental perspectives on transitivity: A confluence of cues. In Y. Levy (Ed.), Other children, other languages: Issues in the theory of language acquisition (pp. 189241). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Berman, R.A. (2000). Children's innovative verbs versus nouns: Structured elicitations and spontaneous coinages. In L. Menn & N. Bernstein Ratner (Eds.), Methods of studying language production (pp. 6994). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Birdsong, D. (1989). Metalinguistic performance and interlinguistic competence. New York: Springer Verlag.
Bowerman, M. (1982). Evaluating competing linguistic models with language acquisition data: Implications of developmental errors with causative verbs. Quaderni di Semanatica, 3, 565.
Bowerman, M. (1990). Mapping thematic roles onto syntactic functions: Are children helped by innate “linking rules”? Linguistics, 28, 12531289.
Bybee, J.L. & Slobin, D.I. (1982). Rules and schemas in the development and use of the English past tense. Language, 58, 265289.
Cabrera, M. & Zubizarreta, M.L. (2003). On the acquisition of Spanish causative structures by L1 speakers of English. In J. Liceras, H. Zobl, & H. Goodluck (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2002 Generative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition (GASLA-6) Conference (pp. 2433). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Cabrera, M. & Zubizarreta, M.L. (2005). Overgeneralization of causatives and transfer in L2 Spanish and L2 English. In D. Eddington (Ed.), Selected Proceedings of the 6th Conference on the Acquisition of Spanish and Portuguese as First and Second Languages (pp. 1530). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Davies, M. (2004, October). The frequency and distribution of [se] constructions in Spanish: A corpus and learner-based approach. Paper presented at the 7th Conference on the Acquisition of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Minnesota.
Doughty, C. & Long, M.H. (2000). Eliciting second language speech data. In L. Menn & N. Bernstein Ratner (Eds.), Methods of studying language production (pp. 149177). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ellis, N.C. (1996). Sequencing in SLA: Phonological memory, chunking, and points of order. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 91126.
Ellis, N.C. (1998). Emergentism, connectionism and language learning. Language Learning, 48, 631664.
Ellis, N.C. (2001). Memory for language. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 3368). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ellis, N.C. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 143188.
Ellis, N.C. (2003). Constructions, chunking, and connectionism: The emergence of second language structure. In C. Doughty & M. H. Long (Eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 3368). Oxford: Blackwell.
Ellis, N.C. (2004). The processes of second language acquisition. In B. VanPatten, J. Williams, S. Rott, & M. Overstreet (Eds.), Form-meaning connections in second language acquisition (pp. 4976). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ellis, R. (1991). Grammaticality judgments and second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 13, 161186.
Ellis, R. (1999). Item versus system learning: Explaining free variation. Applied Linguistics, 20, 460480.
Elman, J.L. (1990). Finding structure in time. Cognitive Science, 14, 179211.
Fontana, J. & Moore, J. (1992). Se-reflexives and NP-movement. Linguistic Inquiry, 23, 501510.
Foster, P. (2001). Rules and routines: A consideration of their role in the task-based language production of native and non-native speakers. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan, & M. Swain (Eds.), Researching pedagogic tasks: Second language learning, teaching and testing (pp. 7594). London: Longman.
Gass, S.M. (1994). The reliability of SL grammaticality judgments. In E. Tarone, S. M. Gass, & A. Cohen (Eds.), Research methodology in second language acquisition (pp. 303322). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Gordon, P. & Chafetz, J. (1990). Verb-based vs. class-based accounts of actionality effects in children's comprehension of passives. Cognition, 36, 227254.
Green, J. (1975). Reflections on Spanish reflexives. Lingua, 35, 345391.
Grimshaw, J. (1990). Argument structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hakuta, K. (1974). Prefabricated patterns and the emergence of structure in second language acquisition. Language Learning, 24, 287297.
Harrington, M. & Dennis, S. (2002). Input-driven language learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 261268.
Haspelmath, M. (1993). More on the typology of inchoative/causative verb alternations. In B. Comrie & M. Polinsky (Eds.), Causatives and transitivity (pp. 87120). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Hopper, P. & Thompson, S. (1980). Transitivity in grammar and discourse. Language, 56, 251299.
Jackson-Maldonado, D., Maldonado, R., & Thal, D.J. (1998). Reflexive and middle markers in early child language acquisition: Evidence from Mexican Spanish. First Language, 18, 403429.
Juffs, A. (1996). Learnability and the lexicon. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Kemmer, S. (1993). The middle voice. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Krashen, S. & Scarcella, R. (1978). On routines and patterns in language acquisition and performance. Language Learning, 28, 283300.
Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Langacker, R. (1991). Concept, image, and symbol: The cognitive basis of grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Levin, B. & Rappaport Hovav, M. (1995). Unaccusativity: At the syntax-lexical semantics interface. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Loebell, H. & Bock, K. (2003). Structural priming across languages. Linguistics, 41, 791824.
Lord, C. (1979). Don't you fall me down: Children's generalizations regarding cause and transitivity. Papers and Reports on Child Language Development, 19, 8189.
Lubbers Quesada, M. (1998). L2 acquisition of the Spanish subjunctive mood and prototype schema development. Spanish Applied Linguistics, 2, 123.
MacWhinney, B. (1978). Processing a first language: The acquisition of morphophonology. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 43( 12, Serial No. 174).
MacWhinney, B. (2002). Extending the competition model. In R. Heredia & J. Altaririba (Eds.), Bilingual sentence processing (pp. 3158). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Maldonado, R. (1993). Dynamic construals in Spanish. Studi Italiani di Linguistica Teorica e Applicata, 22, 531566.
Masullo, P.J. (1992). Antipassive constructions in Spanish. In P. Hirschbuhler & K. Koerner (Eds.), Romance languages and modern linguistic theory (pp. 175194). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Montrul, S. (1997). Transitivity alternations in second language acquisition: A crosslinguistic study of English, Spanish, and Turkish. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Montrul, S. (1999). “Se” o no “Se”: A look at transitive and intransitive verbs in Spanish interlanguage. Spanish Applied Linguistics, 3, 145194.
Montrul, S. (2000). Transitivity alternations in second language acquisition: Toward a modular view of transfer. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 22, 229274.
Montrul, S. (2001). Agentive verbs of manner of motion in Spanish and English as second languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 23, 171207.
Montrul, S. (2004). Psycholinguistic evidence for split intransitivity in Spanish L2. Applied Psycholinguistics, 25, 239267.
Montrul, S. (2005). On knowledge and development of unaccusativity in Spanish L2 acquisition. Linguistics, 43, 11531190.
Moore, M. (1993). Second language acquisition of lexically constrained transitivity alternations: Acquisition of the causative alternation by second language learners of English. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Morimoto, Y. (2001). Los verbos de movimiento [Verbs of motion]. Madrid: Visor Libros.
Myles, F., Hooper, J., & Mitchell, R. (1998). Rote or rule? Exploring the role of formulaic language in classroom foreign language learning. Language Learning, 48, 323363.
Myles, F., Mitchell, R., & Hooper, J. (1999). Interrogative chunks in French L2: A basis for creative construction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 20, 4980.
Nishida, C. (1994). The Spanish reflexive clitic se as an aspectual class marker. Linguistics, 32, 425458.
Nomura, M. & Shirai, Y. (1997). Overextension of intransitive verbs in the acquisition of Japanese. In E. Clark (Ed.), Proceedings of the 28th Annual Child Language Acquisition Forum (pp. 233242). Stanford, CA: CSLI.
Perlmutter, D. (1978). Impersonal passives and the unaccusative hypothesis. Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 4, 157189.
Pinker, S. (1989). Learnability and cognition: The acquisition of argument structure. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pye, C. (1994). A crosslinguistic approach to the causative alternation. In Y. Levy (Ed.), Other children, other languages: Issues in the theory of language acquisition (pp. 243263). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Rosen, C. (1984). The interface between semantic roles and initial grammatical relations. In D. Perlmutter & C. Rosen (Eds.), Studies in relational grammar 2 (pp. 3877). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rutherford, W. (1987). Second language grammar: Learning and teaching. London: Longman.
Schwartz, B. & Sprouse, R. (1996). L2 cognitive states and the full transfer/full access model. Second Language Research, 12, 4072.
Slobin, D.I. (1996). From “thought and language” to “thinking for speaking.” In J. J. Gumperz & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking linguistic relativity (pp. 7098). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Slobin, D.I. & Bever, T. (1982). Children use canonical sentence schemas: A cross-linguistic study of word order and inflections. Cognition, 12, 229265.
Sorace, A. (2000). Gradients in auxiliary selection with intransitive verbs. Language, 76, 859890.
Suñer, M. (1982). On null subjects. Linguistic Analysis, 9, 5578.
Suñer, M. (1983). Change verbs and spontaneous se: Two proposals. Orbis, 33, 150177.
Tomasello, M. (1992). First verbs: A case study of early grammatical development. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Toth, P. (2000). The interaction of instruction and learner-internal factors in the acquisition of L2 morphosyntax. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 22, 169208.
Turley, J.S. (1999). The creation of a grammaticalization chain: The story of Spanish decausative, passive, and indeterminate reflexive constructions. Southwest Journal of Linguistics, 18, 101138.
van Hout, A. (1996). Event semantics and verb frame alternations: A case study of Dutch and its acquisition. (Tilburg Dissertations in Language Studies). Tilburg, The Netherlands: University of Tilburg.
Wehrli, E. (1986). On some properties of French clitic se. In H. Borer (Ed.), The syntax of pronominal clitics (pp. 263284). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
White, L. (1991). Argument structure in second language acquisition. Journal of French Language Studies, 1, 189207.
White, L. (2003). Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Whitley, M.S. (2002). Spanish/English contrasts: A course in Spanish linguistics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Wong-Fillmore, L. (1976). The second time around: Cognitive and social strategies in second language acquisition. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, California.
Zobl, H. (1989). Canonical typological structure and ergativity in English L2 acquisition. In S. M. Gass & J. Schachter (Eds.), Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition (pp. 203221). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Zyzik, E. (2006). Learners' overgeneralization of dative clitics to accusative contexts: Evidence for prototype effects in SLA. In C. A. Klee and T. L. Face (Eds.), Selected Proceedings of the 7th Conference on the Acquisition of Spanish and Portuguese as First and Second Languages (pp. 122134). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Studies in Second Language Acquisition
  • ISSN: 0272-2631
  • EISSN: 1470-1545
  • URL: /core/journals/studies-in-second-language-acquisition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 2
Total number of PDF views: 65 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 215 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.