Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.3, 223-227
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 223
The Acquisition of Complex Structures: The Case of Child ESL
Yumiko Yamaguchi
Department of English Language, Tokyo Denki University, Tokyo, Japan
Received June 30th, 2013; revised August 2nd, 2013; accepted August 10th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Yumiko Yamaguchi. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
This study examines how complex linguistic structures are acquired in child English as a second language.
The spontaneous speech producing by a Japanese primary school child, learning English in a naturalistic
environment, was audio-recorded regularly over two years and the development of complex syntactic
structures containing subordinate clauses was compared with the acquisition of other English morpho-
syntactic structures as represented within Processability Theory (PT) (Pienemann, 1998; Pienemann, Di
Biase, & Kawaguchi, 2005). Although PT predicts that subordination is acquired at the highest stage in
processability hierarchy, the results in this longitudinal study show that some of the subordinate construc-
tions emerge at earlier stages in child ESL acquisition.
Keywords: English as a Second Language; Complex Structures; Subordinate Clauses; Processability
Theory; Primary School Child
The development of subordinate clauses has been the focus
of much language acquisition research in both first language
(L1) (e.g., Diessel & Tomasello, 2005; Kidd & Bavin, 2002;
Sheldon, 1974) and second language (L2) contexts (e.g., Doughty,
1991; Eckman, Bell, & Nelson, 1988; Gass, 1979; Izumi, 2003;
Pavesi, 1986). However, most of the previous studies are expe-
rimental and few observational studies on this issue have been
conducted. While the use of English subordinate clauses in chil-
dren’s spontaneous speech in L1 acquisition has been examined
to some extent (e.g., Bowerman, 1979; Bloom, 1991; Diessel,
2004), longitudinal studies on the development of subordinate
clauses by L2 learners (e.g., Mellow, 2006; Schumann, 1980)
are rare. Also, a majority of previous studies analyzed the ac-
quisition of relative clauses in terms of noun phrase accessibil-
ity hierarchy (Keenan & Comrie, 1977).
Subordinate Clauses in English
Basic types of English subordinate clauses include comple-
ment, relative, and adverbial clauses (e.g., Diessel, 2004; Kroeger,
2005). Complement clauses are commonly defined as subordi-
nate clauses functioning as an argument of the matrix clause
predicate. They may serve as the subject or object of the matrix
clause. In child L1 studies (e.g., Diessel, 2004, Diessel & To-
masello, 2001), object complement clauses are found to be very
common in early child speech. Also, it is found that sentential
complements (S-complements) marked by “that” or zero (e.g.,
Ken know (that) Mary likes dogs”) are the earliest complement
clauses and emerge a few months after the second birthday.
Wh-complements (e.g., “I wonder what John ate for lunch”)
and If-complements marked by “if” or “whether” (e.g., “Lisa
asked me if I like pizza”) are found to appear several months
after the first S-complements.
Relative clauses are subordinate clauses that modify a refer-
ential expression in the matrix clauses. The modified element is
called the head (or filler), and the head can be the subject, the
object, an oblique, a predicate nominal, and so on. Child L1
studies (e.g., Diessel, 2004; Diessel & Tomasello, 2000) found
that the vast majority of the children’s early relative construc-
tions contain a single proposition. In particular, Diessel (2004)
who observed five young children found that an average of
80% of the first ten relative clauses produced by each child is
attached to the predicate nominal of a copular clause. Those
constructions are called “presentational relatives” and the ex-
amples are shown as in 1) to 4). According to Diessel (2004),
young children often produce infinitival and participial relative
constructions containing a single proposition, as in 3) and 4) re-
1) Thats the dog that bit me.
2) There is the girl who Tim loves.
3) This is something to eat.
4) Heres a bird chasing a cat.
This indicates that relative constructions expressing two propo-
sitions, as shown in 5) and 6), rarely appear at early stages in
child L1 acquisition.
5) The boy who called me lives in Japan.
6) I ate the cake which Mary baked.
Regarding adverbial clauses, final adverbial clauses (e.g., “When
Mary came, I was eating lunch”) are found to emerge earlier
than final adverbial clauses (e.g., “I washed my hands after I
cleaned my room”) in child L1 acquisition (e.g., Diessel, 2004).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Subordinate Clauses in Japanese
As the L1 of the participant in this study is Japanese, this
sub-section provides a brief description of Japanese subordinate
Japanese has three basic types of subordinate clauses, which
are similar to those in English, such as complement clauses, re-
lative clauses, and adverbial clauses. According to Shibatani
(1991), the verb is always in the final position of the sentence
in Japanese. Complement clauses are placed before the verb, as
in 7), while relative clauses precede the modified noun, as in 8)
and 9). Adverbial clauses are usually placed before the main
clause, as in 10).
7) Ken wa [Mary ga sushi o tabeta koto] o shitteiru
“Ken knows [that Mary ate sushi].”
8) Ken wa [Mary ga dokode sushi o tabeta ka] kiita
“Ken asked Mary [where she ate sushi].”
9) Mary wa [Ken ga tukutta yuushoku ] o tabeta
“Mary ate dinner [that Ken cooked].”
10) [Mary ga kita toki] Ken wa yuushoku o tukutta
“[When Mary came], Ken cooked dinner.”
Processability Theory (PT)
This study uses Processability Theory (PT) (Pienemann, 1998;
Pienemann, et al., 2005) as a theoretical framework for analys-
ing the learner’s development of complex syntax. PT predicts a
universal hierarchy of processing procedures, which are required
for producing linguistic structures, based on Levelt’s (1989)
speech production model and Lexical Functional Grammar (e.g.,
Bresnan, 2001). According to PT, learners, at any stage of de-
velopment, are able to produce only those linguistic structures
which the current stage of their language processors can handle.
The hypothetical hierarchy of processing procedures for mor-
pho-syntactic development is summarized in Pienemann (1998,
2005), as shown in Table 1.
At the first stage, the learner has not developed any langu-
age-specific procedures yet. Thus, possible outcomes at this stage
are single words of invariant form that do not require any proc-
essing procedure or information exchange.
The learner at the category procedure stage is assumed to
become able to employ lexical form variation, such as the inser-
tion of the affix -ed on the verb for indicating past tense and
plural -s marking on nouns without agreement, as in I read books.
At the phrasal procedure stage, the agreement between the
head noun and its modifier in the noun phrase, as in two cats, is
predicted to emerge since the information exchange between
two elements in the same phrase becomes possible. In the case
of languages with verb phrases, such as English, the learner is
assumed to become able to assign particular verb forms with
auxiliaries (e.g., is cooking vs. has cooked) at this stage1.
The learner at the S(entence)-procedure stage is assumed to
become able to exchange information between different phrases.
Thus, subject-verb agreement (i.e., third person singular -s, as
in Mary likes pizza) is predicted to emerge at this stage.
Complex structures containing subordinate clauses are placed
at the top of the processing hierarchy, namely at S’-procedure
stage. At this stage, the learner is assumed to become able to
exchange information about the values of relevant diacritic fea-
tures between elements in different clauses, that is, the main
and the subordinate clauses. According to PT, possible outcomes
at the S’-procedure stage are indirect questions, as in 11), since
the learner needs to distinguish between the main clause and the
subordinate clause where the question word order (i.e., where
has Mary gone?) is not applied.
11) I wonder where Mary has gone.
Previous PT studies for English (e.g., Dyson, 2010; Piene-
mann, 1998; Sakai, 2008) reported that indirect questions were
acquired later than other morpho-syntactic structures listed in
processability hierarchy. However, as the acquisition of other
types of subordinate constructions, such as relative clauses, has
not been examined in PT, it is not clear whether indirect ques-
tions and other subordinate constructions are acquired at the
same stage in processability hierarchy. Therefore, more studies
are needed to investigate the developmental stages of complex
structures containing various subordinate clauses.
Research Questions
In order to address the issues which remain unclear in previ-
ous ESL and PT studies, the following research questions are
formulated in this study.
Q1: Are indirect questions acquired at the highest stage in
ESL acquisition by a Japanese child as predicted in PT?
Q2: Does the child learner acquire indirect questions and
other subordinate constructions at the same time?
Table 1.
Hypothetical hierarchy of processing procedures (after Pienemann, 2005).
Procedure t1 t2 t3 t4 t5
Procedure - - - -
inter-clausal information
Procedure - - -
inter-phrasal information
inter-phrasal information
Procedure - -
phrasal information
phrasal information
phrasal information
Procedure - lexical form
lexical form
lexical form
lexical form
single words and
single words
and formulas
single words and
single words and
formulas single words and formulas
1Although PT predicts that verb phrase agreement emerges after noun phrase agreement, the relative sequence is not clear yet (Bettoni & Di Biase, in preparation).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 225
Research Design
In order to trace the way in which English subordinate clauses
develop over time, a two-year longitudinal study was conducted
on a Japanese primary school child learning English in Austra-
lia. Since longitudinal studies on L2 acquisition over a period
of two years are rare, the current study provides a valuable re-
source for investigating ESL development from the beginning
point of L2 learning to higher acquisitional stages.
The informant in this study is a Japanese female child, Kumika
(code name). She was a Japanese monolingual until she was 5
years 7 months old. Although she participated in an English ac-
tivity program instructed by a native speaker of English for 2
hours per week for 32 weeks from 4 years 10 months to 5 years
6 months old, she never received formal English instruction and
had few opportunities to speak English in Japan. When she
moved to Australia with her family and started attending local
primary school at the age of 5 years and 7 months, her English
was limited to basic words and formulaic expressions (e.g.,
thank you, I dont know).
Data Collection Procedure
Data collection started one month after Kumika started at-
tending local primary school in Australia. The child’s speech
production in English was audio recorded regularly. Table 2
shows the amount of her exposure to English in Australia in
weeks before each session.
In order to elicit the child’s speech production in English,
several tasks, such as picture description tasks and communica-
tion games, were utilized in this study. Each session lasted 20
to 40 minutes according to the child’s motivation. All the au-
dio-recorded sessions were transcribed.
Data Analysis
The distributional analyses of speech data were conducted
for English structures listed in PT stages and other subordinate
constructions. In order to examine the development of indirect
questions and other types of subordinate constructions in detail,
subordinate clauses appeared in the child speech production
were coded based on previous observational studies (e.g., Di-
essel, 2004) as follows:
Complement clauses: S-, Wh-, If-complements
Relative clauses: Relative constructions with two proposi-
tions or with a single proposition, Presentational (e.g., there is ~,
this is ~), Infinitival, or Participial relatives
Adverbial clauses: Initial or Final adverbial clauses
Then, the development of each type of subordinate clauses is
compared with the acquisition of other morpho-syntactic struc-
tures listed in PT stages.
The results of the distributional analyses of various subordi-
nate clauses are presented in Table 3. The first row shows the
different points in time (t1, t2…) in the corpus. Note that If-
complements are not included in this table as they never ap-
peared in the child corpus. The occurrences of each structure
were simply counted and the total number of the occurrences
was entered for each structure at each point in time. The num-
ber in brackets shows the total number of the occurrences of
non-target-like relative constructions. As for Wh-complements,
the number after the slash “/” indicates the contexts of Wh-
complements. For instance, “1/2” shows that the child was able
to produce one target-like indirect question out of the two contexts.
As shown in Table 3, non-target-like relative constructions
with a single proposition, as in 12), appeared at t2.
12) Do you have a flower is pink?
This structure is called “presentational amalgam construc-
tion” (Lambrecht, 1988) and is found to appear as a precursor
to the presentational relative constructions at the early stage in
child L1 acquisition (e.g., Diessel, 2004).
At t3, target-like relative constructions with a single proposi-
tion emerged in the form of infinitival relative clauses, as in 13).
Then, participial relative clauses appeared at t4, as in 14).
Table 2.
Kumika’s exposure to English in weeks before each session.
Time t1 t2 t3 t4 t5 t6 t7 t8 t9 t10 t11 t12 t13 t14
Exposure to English (weeks) 4 6 8 10 12 20 28 36 44 52 64 76 88 100
Table 3.
Distribution of subordinate clauses.
Structure/time t1 t2 t3 t4 t5 t6 t7 t8 t9 t10 t11 t12 t13t14
S-comp 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 2 2 1 4 2 1 2
Wh-comp 0 0 0 0 0 0 1/1 3/3 1/1 1/1 1/2 1/1 0 0
Relatives-two propositions 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 2 1 0
Relatives-single proposition (with Wh-, that, or zero) 0 (8)(1)0 0 (1)0 1(1)4 2 4 5 2 2
(Infinitival relatives) 0 0 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 0 0 1
(Participial relatives) 0 0 0 2 0 4 5 0 4 0 0 0 8 2
Final ADV 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 0 2 5 3 1 1 7
Initial ADV 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 11 5 4 8 9 7
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
13) We have a books to read
14) I have dog eating the doughnut
At t6, S-complements and adverbial clauses in the final posi-
tion emerged at the same time, as in 15) and 16) respectively.
15) Boy think thats a bad man
16) Scooby Doo was really scary because they are going fast
At t7, Wh-complements in the form of indirect questions
emerged, as in 17).
17) Do you know what this is?
At the same time, adverbial clauses in the initial position also
emerged, as in (18). Note that “xxx” in brackets indicates an
unintelligible word with three syllables.
18) When boy sleep (xxx) he start to go out from a bottle
At t8, the child started using relative pronouns in the presen-
tational relative constructions which express a single proposi-
tion, as in 19).
19) One day there was a mother who was not scared of any-
Then, at t9, she finally produced relative constructions con-
taining two propositions for the first time, as in 20).
20) They have something looks like stick
Although she omitted a relative pronoun, namely “that” in
19), more target-like relative constructions with two proposi-
tions appeared at t10, as in 21) and 22).
21) He got up and look at his frog that he caught yesterday
22) He saw big bunch of the bees who was chasing the dog
The results show the child in this study produced “presenta-
tional amalgam constructions” before any of the target-like rela-
tive constructions. This is consistent with the findings in child
L1 acquisition studies (e.g., Diessel, 2004) and suggests that the
amalgam construction can be a precursor to the presentational
relative constructions in L2 acquisition as well.
Figure 1 shows PT stages for other morpho-syntactic struc-
tures compared with emergence points for subordinate con-
struction examined in this study.
As shown in Figure 1, the child was at stage 3, namely phra-
sal procedure stage, when English subordination emerged. This
suggests that the child started using subordinate clauses after
she acquired phrasal morphology which requires phrasal pro-
cedure. At that time, the child was able to produce relative con-
structions containing only one proposition. The child was still
at stage 3 when S-complements and adverbial clauses in the fi-
nal position emerged at t6.
When the child reached stage 4, namely S-procedure stage, at
t7, Wh-complements in the form of indirect questions and ad-
verbial clauses in the initial position emerged. This indicates
that indirect questions emerged at the same time when the child
Figure 1.
Stages for other structures compared with emergence points for subor-
acquired inter-phrasal morphology. Thus, this finding is not
compatible with the prediction in PT that the production of
indirect questions requires the highest procedural skill, namely
On the other hand, relative constructions containing two pro-
positions emerged at t9 after she acquired other morphosyntac-
tic structures listed in PT stages. This suggests that only relative
constructions with two propositions can be considered to emer-
ge at the highest stage in L2 acquisition.
These findings indicate that different types of subordinate
constructions emerged at different stages in child ESL acquisi-
tion. In other words, indirect questions and other types of sub-
ordinate constructions, except initial adverbial clauses, are not
found to be acquired at the same time. Since indirect questions
were acquired when the child was at S-procedure stage, the
finding in this study is not consistent with the prediction in PT
that English subordination emerges at S’-procedure stage. This
suggests that it may be necessary to reconsider possible out-
comes at S’-procedure stage in processability hierarchy and to
reformulate developmental stages by including other types of
subordinate constructions.
However, it should be noted that the earlier occurrence of
relative constructions with a single proposition is compatible
with the findings in L1 acquisition studies. Also, final adverbial
clauses are shown to develop before initial adverbial clauses as
found in L1 acquisition studies. These findings suggest that
English subordination develops in a similar manner in both L1
and L2 acquisition.
The results of this two-year longitudinal study of a Japanese
child learner do not show support for the prediction in PT that
indirect questions are acquired at the highest stage in ESL ac-
quisition. This study also demonstrates that indirect questions
and other types of subordinate constructions, except initial ad-
verbial clauses, are not acquired at the same time. As only rela-
tive constructions expressing two propositions are found to
emerge at the highest stage, it seems that the production of sub-
ordinate clauses does not always require the highest procedural
skill. However, as this study examined only one Japanese pri-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 227
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structures including various subordinate clauses is needed in
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