Learning aspect in Italian as a third language : Transfer patterns among multilingual learners in the Swedish context

Abstract: This thesis explores the impact of previously acquired or learned background languages (BL) on the learning of Italian as a third language (L3) among undergraduate students in the Swedish context. Focusing on the learning of past tense-aspect (TA) inflectional categories in Italian, the thesis investigates the influence of Swedish, English and Romance languages, French or Spanish, in light of four factors. The typology factor entails the linguistic similarity between the L3 and the BLs. The language status factor examines the different roles played by first (L1) and second (L2) languages. The proficiency factor refers to proficiency in both the L2s and the L3. The prototype factor deals with different combinations of grammatical and lexical aspect, defined as prototypical and non-prototypical. Eight Italian native speakers and 36 undergraduate students learning Italian in Sweden were included in the studies making up the thesis. The learner group had knowledge of Swedish and English. A majority had additional knowledge of a Romance language, which allowed for a distinction to be made between a non-Romance and a Romance group. The participants completed a background questionnaire and a test battery of seven tests consisting of three C-tests (French, Spanish, and Italian), three interpretation tests of aspectual contrasts (English, French, and Italian), and an oral retelling story test in Italian. The data were analyzed quantitatively, by means of descriptive and inferential statistics, and qualitatively, through content analysis. Study I probed the impact of typology, L3 proficiency and prototypes on oral production data. At low-proficiency levels, prior L2 knowledge of a Romance language favored the emergence of imperfective morphology in L3 Italian while learners at high-proficiency levels were sensitive to prototypes. Based on interpretation data, Study II went further into the role of typology, L2 proficiency and prototypes, revealing a beneficial effect of English and Romance languages, except with non-prototypical associations. Study III looked into typology and L2/L3 proficiency. Four categories, differently distributed depending on L2/L3 proficiency, unfolded from written introspection data submitted to qualitative content analysis: explicit rules, intuition, other languages and uncertainty/unknown. Study IV, closely examining three participants with different acquisition orders of Swedish, English and French, showed an interaction of the language status with L3 proficiency, typology and prototypes. Overall, the results indicate that all BLs impact the learning of prototypical associations, while the L1 alone influences learning of non-prototypical associations. Further, the typology factor and the L2 proficiency factor are crucial for transfer of forms and transfer of meanings, respectively. The influence of the BLs is prevalent at early acquisition stages while advanced stages are uniformly shaped by prototypes. Also, learners gradually add different layers of information to their explicit knowledge of tenses. The results align with L3 accounts arguing for property-by-property hybrid transfer. The thesis further connects L3 transfer research focusing on linguistic and conceptual transfer to research on learning TA morphology. In light of the above contributions, the thesis recommends explicit crosslinguistic instruction aiming to foster positive transfer through tailor-made use of the learners’ BLs.

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