The effectiveness of animacy distinctions for learning case marking in second language German instruction

Open Access
DiMidio, Jack Andrew
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Carrie Jackson, Thesis Supervisor
  • Samuel Frederick, Honors Advisor
  • German
  • Processing Instruction
  • Animacy Distinction
  • L2
  • First Noun Principle
  • Case Marking
  • Prosody
  • Lexical Semantics
Many studies have shown that L2 learners can use syntactic as well as semantic cues to determine sentence arguments during comprehension (e.g., Kempe & MacWhinney, 1998). For instance, animacy has been shown to assist in distinguishing agent-patient roles in sentences with mixed word order (Kempe & MacWhinney, 1998; Mak, Vonk, & Schriefers, 2002; Weckerly & Kutas, 1999). At the same time, the First Noun Principle, as a part of Processing Instruction (PI) (VanPatten, 2004), says that learners will process the first noun in a sentence as the agent, which leads learners to incorrectly process object-first sentences. PI also argues that all non-target cues, including semantic cues, must not be included in the input to encourage learners not to rely on the First Noun Principle and apply more optimal processing strategies, like using case marking to identify the agent and patient in a sentence. Using the framework of PI, this study investigated whether animacy distinctions can help German L2 learners overcome the First Noun Principle to learn object-first word order. The experiment was split between two groups of second semester German learners and conducted over two class sessions. The independent variable between both groups was animacy on the first noun phrase (NP1) in an in-class training unit. During training, participants heard object-first sentences accompanied by a set of two pictures, one of which correctly matched the sentence. +ANIM: OVS: DenACC Wolf+ANIM tötet derNOM Jäger+ANIM. TheACC wolf+ANIM kills theNOM hunter+ANIM. “The hunter kills the wolf.” -ANIM: OVS: DenACC Ball-ANIM wirft derNOM Junge+ANIM. TheACC ball-ANIM throws theNOM boy+ANIM. “The boy throws the ball.” A sentence interpretation task and a written production task, both administered prior to and immediately after the training was used to measure the effectiveness of the training. The results revealed no statistically significant difference between groups on the posttest, however the descriptive results show evidence for improvement in the -ANIM group over the +ANIM group. The results suggest that an animacy distinction may help L2 German learners acquire and process case marking.