by Mike Tiittanen
Seneca College, Canada
This study examined whether the self-reported use of English outside school by Mandarin-speaking and Tamil-speaking ESL learners played a role in the accuracy of the oral use of the simple past tense. The participants were primarily in their thirties and were mostly students in an ESL class of a lower intermediate or intermediate level of proficiency. This study used an interview questions task which was designed to elicit the oral use of the simple past tense. The results indicate that there is an interaction between L1 and the use of English outside an ESL school environment. The Tamil-speaking ESL participants who reported using English outside their ESL school were more accurate than those Mandarin-speaking ESL participants who also reported such use of English. For those learners who reported no use of English beyond the classroom, there was no difference in accuracy between the two L1 groups. However, the fact that the data on English use outside the class was self-reported throws some doubt upon the reliability of the data.
Previous SLA research indicates that L1 appears to play a role with regard to the accuracy of use of the simple past tense by ESL learners who speak different Chinese dialects (Goad, White & Steele, 2003, p. 245; Yang & Huang, 2004, p. 49). Mandarin Chinese-speaking ESL learners tend to have a low rate of accuracy in using the simple past tense in obligatory grammatical environments when apparently drawing on their procedural knowledge (Witton-Davies, 2004, pp.14-16). Their accuracy issues with the simple past appear to be related to the fact that Mandarin does not have a grammatical past tense (Smith & Erbaugh, 2005, p. 713). Some research appears to indicate that ESL learners whose L1 has a grammatical past tense (e.g. Tamil) have a higher rate of accuracy with the simple past tense than Mandarin-speaking ESL learners on tasks intended to induce use of procedural knowledge (Tiittanen, 2013, p. 89).
Some SLA research indicates that L2 learners tend to benefit from greater exposure to the target language outside the classroom (Beebe, 1998). A number of studies within the interaction paradigm of SLA are consistent with the notion that such exposure to the target language outside school may promote L2 learning. For instance, Long’s (1996) interaction hypothesis asserts that conversational interaction facilitates L2 acquisition (pp. 451-452), including the development of L2 morphology (p.414), and possibly the English simple past tense. In addition, Swain’s output hypothesis (Swain, 1985; 1995) may also be relevant in this regard. Swain’s studies of Canadian French immersion students led her to conclude that these students’ limited opportunities to use the target language stifled their language growth. Swain (1995) asserts that output of the target language may promote more accurate production of, amongst other things, morphology (p. 128), including possibly the simple past tense. However, little research to date has investigated whether there is a relationship between use of the target language outside the classroom and learner first language (e.g. Mandarin and Tamil) with regard to the accuracy of oral use of the simple past tense. This research was conducted in order to derive preliminary results on whether such a relationship appears to exist.
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