Globalization in trade, commerce, and politics has intensified the need to be bilingual or multilingual. As a result, fluency in more than one language is becoming a social and economic commodity rather than disparaged as a sign of ethnic origin. Increases in large-scale immigration have escalated the need to master the language of the host country in individuals who are beyond the optimal period for language learning. The current importance of bilingualism has led to an explosion of research on factors influencing second language acquisition and encouraged the exploration of new ways to advance foreign language acquisition by adult learners. Song has long been used in second language classrooms to teach vocabulary. However, the potential of song for acquiring foreign language grammars is unknown. The work described in this chapter explores whether song can facilitate learning the morphosyntactic features of an unfamiliar language.

Mastering a foreign language is challenging for late learners, and this is particularly true in the case of morphosyntax, an aspect of language which deals with inflectional morphemes and their phrase-level or sentence-level functions. English, for example, indicates the past tense of regular verbs by adding [-ed| to the verb stem. In the case of noun number, English distinguishes singular from plural by adding [-s| to the singular form of regular nouns (e.g., hook vs hooks). Verbs agree in number and person with their sentential subjects so that sentences which violate this requirement such as (1) and (2) are ungrammatical:

  • 1 *The books for the children was damaged by the fire.
  • 2 *He look like he’s hungry.

Many languages not only mark subject-verb agreement but gender agreement as well. In grammatical gender languages, nouns are classified as grammatically masculine or feminine. Gender agreement essentially refers to morphological marking on elements such as past participles, determiners, adjectives, and/or pronouns, in a way that signals со-referent relations with the grammatical gender of the noun or pronominal referent. Languages such as German, Romance, and Slavic have rich gender agreement systems whereas English marks gender only for pronouns (e.g., he/him/his for masculine referents). Violations of gender agreement result in ungrammatical sentences. For example, the following French sentence (3) is grammatically deviant in three ways. First, livre (book) is masculine and should accordingly occur with the masculine determiner le rather than feminine la. Second, the adjective verte is feminine and although it agrees with the determiner in gender, it should be masculine (vert) because it modifies a masculine noun. Finally, grammatically feminine table (table) should occur with feminine la rather than masculine le.

3. *La livre verte est sur le table

The(F) book green(F) is on the(M) table.

Language researchers have identified several factors that are associated with the difficulty of acquiring L2 morphosyntax. These factors include age of acquisition, indexed by age of arrival (AoA) in the L2 country (e.g., Newport & Johnson, 1989), cognitive factors such as individual differences in working memory (e.g., Hopp, 2010; Lempert, 2016; McDonald, 2006), musical aptitude (e.g., Sieve & Miyake, 2006), and transfer from the native language. In particular, learning an L2 construction is facilitated when it is instantiated in the LI than when it is not realized in the LI; the facilitation is even greater when the L1 and L2 use similar surface features to mark the construction (e.g., Franceschina, 2005; Sabourin, Stowe, & De Haan, 2006).

The challenge facing learners of L2 morphosyntactic features is exaggerated when the first language is impoverished with respect to inflectional morphology. Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) is a paradigmatic instance of such languages. It does not use inflections to mark case, number, or tense. Verbs may occur with particles that carry aspectual and modal information, but they do not attach inflections for person or number. Count nouns do not bear obligatory inflections for number, gender, or case, although personal pronouns do seem to differ inflectionally in singular and plural forms (wo = I, me; wo-men = we, us).

Research on acquisition of English grammar by LI-Chinese learners has indicated persistent difficult}’ with L2 morphosyntax, at least when the L2 is English (e.g. Newport & Johnson, 1989). For example, in word-by-word reading of English sentences, they behave as if they are insensitive to violations of number agreement when a plural quantifier combines with a singular noun e.g., Many of the book (e.g., Jiang, 2004), their neural processing patterns in response to subject-verb violations in English sentences differs from that of natives even when they are behaviorally sensitive to the number conflict (Chen, Shu, Liu, Zhao, & Li, 2007), and both early and late learners produce reliably more subject-verb agreement violations than natives when completing preambles such as The letters from the lawyer ... lost in the mail (Lempert, 2016).

Suppliance of obligatory inflections for tense and agreement is problematic for proficient LI-Chinese late learners of English even after many years of immersion in English (Lardiere, 1998) However, even early learners may experience some difficulty with inflectional morphology: Aaronson and Ferres (1987) observed omissions of past tense — ed and deviant subjectverb agreement (e.g., *the bites was; *the stimulation were) in the written work of two highly proficient LI Chinese students at age 21; one was born in the United States and the other arrived from Hong Kong at age five. It seems as if the inflectional problem extends to early learners as well as late learners.

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