Year of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only

Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name

Modern Languages and Literature (Spanish Option)

Department or School/College

Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures

Committee Chair

Naomi Lapidus Shin

Commitee Members

María Bustos, Tully Thibeau


Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, Spanish


University of Montana


Linguists have proposed that language learner behavior does not reflect a single system, but “is a complex of quite different [linguistic modules] each obeying different principles” (Sharwood Smith 1994). When different linguistic modules interact in language, there is an interface. Second language acquisition (SLA) researchers have proposed the Interface Hypothesis, which states that second language (L2) learners are able to acquire narrow syntax, but may experience delay with the interface of syntax and other modules (Sorace & Filiaci 2006). Additional research has proposed that syntaxsemantic features are acquired sooner than syntax-discourse features in SLA (Tsimpli & Sorace 2006). One way researchers have tested this hypothesis is by studying L2 learners of pro-drop languages like Spanish. Pro-drop languages allow subject pronouns to be expressed overtly, as in the Spanish phrase Yo veo (I see), or null, as in Veo (*Ø see). Studies show that native speaker distribution of subject pronouns deals with the interface of narrow syntax and features of discourse, semantics, etc. Although subject pronouns in Spanish are grammatically variable (i.e. either a null or overt subject pronoun is grammatically acceptable in many contexts), the actual distribution of null and overt subject pronouns in Spanish is predicted by variables such as the person and number of the subject, continuity of reference (i.e. whether the verb retains the same subject as the previous verb or not), clause type, and so on. Previous studies have found that L2 learners of null subject languages learn the narrow syntax of subject pronouns early (Rothman 2008), but their distribution of subject pronouns does not become more native-like until a late stage in their development. The current study analyzes 17 interviews in Spanish with English-speaking L2 learners of Spanish who have obtained varying degrees of proficiency: beginner, intermediate, advanced. The results support the Interface Hypothesis given that all interviewees produced null and overt subject pronouns, but the L2 learners differed greatly from native speakers with respect to sensitivity to interface features. The results do not confirm that syntax-semantic features are acquired before syntax-discourse features but do suggest that syntax-morphology features are acquired before other interface features.

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