Arabic Learners’ Production of Regular English Past Tense Verbs

Baraa A. Rajab


Previous studies show that second language (L2) learners of English sometimes produce the verb with proper past tense inflectional morphology as in help[t] and sometimes repair the cluster, as in helpø or hel[pəd]. Complicating matters, these studies focused on L2 learners whose native languages disallowed codas or had very restricted codas. Thus, it is difficult to tell whether any problems in producing past tense morphology are due to first language L1-transferred coda restrictions, or an inability to acquire the abstract feature of past tense. To rule out native language syllable structure interference, this paper aims to examine the production of the English regular past tense verb by Arabic L1 ESL learners, a language that allows complex codas. The paper also examines the role of a phonological universal, the Obligatory Contour Principle (OCP) that disallows two adjacent similar sounds, and its effect on learners’ production. The data come from twenty-two English as a Second Language (ESL) students at three levels of proficiency. The task was a sentence list eliciting target clusters in past tense contexts that violate manner in OCP: fricative + stop ([st], [ft]) vs. stop + stop ([pt], [kt]). Results show that L1 Arabic speakers have difficulty in producing past tense morphology, even though their L1 allows complex codas. Fricative + stop clusters are repaired (epenthesis/deletion) at a lower rate (low =25.71%, intermediate = 6.6%, high=11.11%) than stop + stop clusters (low=57.14%, intermediate = 40.27%, high=22.91%). The higher rate of repair is clear in stops + stop clusters suggesting that learners abide by phonological universals and prefer not to violate OCP. Finally, proficiency level has an effect on target-like production, as higher-proficiency learners produce past-tense morphology at a higher rate than lower-proficiency learners. Together, these results indicate that L1 transfer is not the only source of difficulty in the production of past tense morphology, and that the abstract feature of tense is problematic, particularly at the early stages of ESL development.

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