Input Cues and L2 Acquisition


Marit R. Westergaard (Tromsø)



This study investigates how Norwegian 7- to 12-year-olds acquire word order in English in a classrom setting with minimal input over an extended period of time. The focus of the investigation is the extent of language transfer from the L1, the order of acquisition of the different constructions, and the frequency of the input cues necessary to trigger a reorganization of the children’s internalized grammar.


English is an SVO language, while Norwegian is a typical example of Germanic verb second (V2), with the verb always in second position in all main clauses (standardly assumed to be the result of verb movement to C, see Vikner 1995). Relevant syntactic constructions are topicalized structures, questions, and sentences with adverbials, as illustrated in (1)-(3). It will be shown in this paper that there is considerable transfer of V2 order in these children’s English. Thus, in the process of acquiring English word order, Norwegians will have to ”unlearn” the verb movement rule that they have acquired for their L1.


(1)      a. I går spilte Peter piano hele dagen.

            yesterday played P piano all day

     b.Yesterday Peter played the piano all day.

(2)      a. Hva spilte Peter i går?                         

     what played P yesterday

b. What did Peter play yesterday?

(3)      a. Peter spiller alltid piano.

                  P plays always piano

b. Peter always plays the piano.


Given this transfer, it becomes an important question what input cues are necessary in order for these learners to realize that the L2 is not like their L1. Lightfoot’s (1999) cue-based approach to first language acquisition argues that the designated cue for a particular construction must have a certain frequency in the input for that construction to be acquired. The cue for V2, he claims, is a topicalized structure, and the historical loss of V2 in English is explained as the result of a lower frequency of the cue in the input to English-speaking children.


In an extension of this approach to second language acquisition, I will argue that a development from a V2 grammar to an SVO grammar requires two input cues – topicalized structures (for learners to realize that there is no verb movement to C in English) and sentences with do-support (to realize that only auxiliaries move to I). Unfortunately for the learners in this study, the former construction is relatively infrequent in English, while the latter is often avoided in early teaching material because of its complexity. Thus, word order will be a relatively late acquisition for these L2 learners of English, and the order of acquisition (sentences like (1) are acquired earlier than those in (2) and (3)) seems to be partly dependent on the frequency of the input cue in the teaching material.



Lightfoot, D. (1999), The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change and Evolution, Blackwell.

Vikner, S. (1995), Verb Movement and Expletive Subjects in the Germanic Languages, Oxford UP.