Ionin etal 2009

Last week, we read and discussed the article by Ionin et al on the acquisition of article semantics. A number of interesting questions were raised by Sean, Dana, Namrata, Micah, Elizabeth, and Meghan, who might like to reiterate the questions here so that other members of the class can comment and discuss them. In addition, any other comments on this article and issues it raises, or things you particularly liked or disliked about it, can be discussed here.

3 Responses to “Ionin etal 2009”

  1. Micah says:

    One of the questions that I have been considering about in this article is the use of null article usage by L2-English learners. Article semantics as discussed in Ionin et al (2009) tests the acquisition of articles by both adults and children who are native Russian speakers learning English. The tests determine whether the speakers misuse definitite and indefinite articles and whether they are specific or not, but what happens when you aren’t supposed to have an article. For instance when we share knowledge about a place we say, “at school, at work, or at home” as opposed to “at the home, at the school, and at the work.” How can we test whether or not the learners can differentiate this usage? Is it possible to determine whether or not they understand the semantics of these situation? Can they differentiate between the two usages?

  2. Jill McCarty says:

    Good question, Micah. I am not sure how we would test it for sure, but I think that this idea is important to teach students. Just today, in my tutoring session, the lady was saying things like, “at the Walmart” and “at the church.” It almost seems like these need to be memorized, but what might be even more confusing is that we can use the definite article with ‘church,’ ‘Walmart,’ and ’school’ in certain contexts such as (1-3).

    (1) The church across the street
    (2) The Walmart on Pecan St
    (3) The school with the nice gym.

    There are so many things to think about when teaching ESL. I am a native speaker of English, but I think these forms are intimidating at times, too. It makes me think about how scary it is for a second language learner to acquire them. So, I know I didn’t really answer Micah’s questions directly, but he did get me thinking about how we might teach this stuff.

  3. Dulce de Castro says:

    Micah raises a very interesting point. As we know, English has three possible articles: the definite article, the indefinite article, and the null/zero article. Strictly speaking, the null article occurs with singular count nouns and the zero article occurs with plural nouns and noncount nouns. However, the term “zero article” has been traditionally used to refer to the omission of the article before a noun regardless of whether the noun is singular or plural, count or noncount. Since the zero article is the most common English article, it is very important that L2 English speakers understand the semantics of this article.

    Dr. Stvan (from our Linguistics Department) wrote a very interesting article about locative phrases such as the ones that Micah mentioned: at school, at work, at home. She showed that these locative phrases generate two types of conventionalized implicatures: an activity implicature and a possessor (or familiarity) implicature. The activity implicature evokes the activity associated with the location NP while the possessor implicature is used to indicate that the location NP is connected to the hearer or listener or refers to a located entity. The bare singulars that occur in locative phrases in English are restricted to certain nouns. Stvan collected 22 naturally-occurring bare singulars used in locative phrases. These nouns are shown below:

    town, home, bed, table, class, college, university, school, campus, work, church, synagogue, seminary, hospital, court, jail, prison, camp, site, sea, deck, stage

    The following examples show the different semantic interpretations of a locative phrase depending on the type of article that precedes the singular noun. Stvan explains that in sentences (a) and (b) the locative phrase is used only to refer to a place while (c) implicates that Baker is serving time in prison, and thus it conveys an activity implicature.

    a. Baker is in a prison.
    b. Baker is in the prison.
    c. Baker is in prison.

    Micah asked how one can test whether the learners know the semantic difference between a locative phrase with zero article versus a locative phrase that has a definite or an indefinite article. Perhaps one could create a task where learners would have to choose the correct meaning for locative phrases like the ones indicated above. For example, one could ask the learner to circle the phrase that means that Baker is serving time in prison. The correct answer in this case would be (c).

    Reference
    Stvan, Laurel. 1993. Activity implicatures and possessor implicatures: what are locations when there is no article? ed. Katherine Beals CLS 29.419-433

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