University of Sussex
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A multifactorial study of the uses of may and can in French-English interlanguage

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:57 authored by Sandra C Deshors
This study contributes to the understanding of how language learners make use of a second language, specifically how French English learners make use of the English modals may and can. The study is based on the assumptions that (i) acquiring a new language is a cognitively demanding task which requires the acquirer to identify [a] large amount of co-occurrence data, that (ii) those data are probabilistic in nature rather than absolute, and (iii) that semantic differences are particularly hard to discern and learn as they are not oxplicably noticeable. This study applies Divjak and Grie's (2008) behavioural Profile approach to semantic analysis to a corpus of native and learner English and native French in order to offer a fine-grained quantitative investigation of the co-occurrence patterns of may and can in both English varieties. It shows not only that may and can can be characterised and differentiated on the basis of their co-occurrence patterns, but also that such co-occurrence patterns vary systematically in native English and French-English interlanguage. This finding is supported by monofactorial and multifactorial statistical results indicating that (i) the meanings and the functions of may and can in both English varieties are correlated with the distributions of formal elements within their contexts of occurrence and (ii) that the uses of may and can activate different linguistic levels simultaneously. Generally, these results suggest that the grammatical context of the forms' occurrences presents processing constraints that influence and ultimately characterise learners' choices of may and can. More specifically, the study identifies six grammatical components that systematically trigger the use of may and can in a non-native fashion. Overall, the study shows that (i) it is possible to predict learner language on the basis of corpus-based and psychologically-informed hypotheses on the processing and the acquisition of lexical items of second language learners.


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  • English Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • dphil


  • eng


University of Sussex

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