1. Literature Review

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Mar 21, 2019 10:27
1. Literature Review
Much research have been done on the topic of mass-count distinction in the area of children language acquisition (Chierchia, 2010; Martin and Garrett 1999; Inagaki and Barner 2009) while there are less studies investigating how second language learners handle such a distinction in the process of the acquisition of a second language. The topic is of particular interest for the development of the theories on Universal Grammar as it allows to investigate the role of semantic universal and the transfer from L1.

To date there is not a univocal account for the general situation; some research (Ionin and Montrul 2010; Schwartz and Sprouse 1996) lean toward a decisive contribution of the L1 in the development of the L2, some others (Ionin, Ko, Wexler 2004) point out the importance of the parameters resetting and of the universal principles.
The present study is the replication of a research made by Choi Ianin Zhui (2018) which investigated the acquisition of the English mass-count distinction by Chinese and Korean second language learners. Their aim was to establish the degree of influence of L1 transfer and of the universal semantic of atomicity in the acquisition of mass-count nouns. To this aim, they chose three languages that behave differently in terms of mass-noun distinction; in fact, English uses inflectional morphology to distinguish between mass and count nouns, while in Korean and Mandarin, it is possible to use bare singular form to express both plurality and singularity.
In addition, the two Asian languages differ in terms of optionality for the plural marking.
The results showed that semantic atomicity played a major role in the acquisition of a second language and that the universal semantic is a better predictor of the mass-count noun distinction acquisition, than L1 transfer. In other words, the experiments did not find any significant difference between the two groups of Chinese and Korean learners of English.
The present replication of study will make some change in the outlook of the experiments and will also employed Italian instead of Korean Language. The reasoning for this change is to compare the acquisition of mass-count nouns distinction between a language typologically close to English, like Italian, and another, sensibly different, like Chinese. If the transfer from L1 plays no role in the acquisition of the semantic of nouns, Italian and Chinese learners, with a same background of studies, will show a similar degree of acquisition; while if the results of two group will be divergent, it may be explained with their different L1 languages.

2. Linguistic background
The reflection on the semantic propriety of atomicity concerns the different usage that languages make of plural and singular nouns. Mass nouns can be used in the bare singular form or with a classifier like much, while count nouns can only be used with the classifier many, a numeral or an article. Languages like English have a fully grammatilized distinction of mass and count name while other languages, like Korean or Chinese, can use the singular bare form for both mass and count nouns.
There have been many accounts for the semantic of the distinction of mass and count nouns. The concept of boundless and bounded has been adopted by Jackendoff (1991) and Langacker (1999) to explain the difference between a mass and a noun name. It has been argued that a bounded object is usually a count name: the notion of ‘bounded’ reflects that one of boundary; therefore the objects that have a sort of boundary dividing one from another are usually countable. On the other side, substances, like coffee or sugar, are boundless because they are virtually spatial unlimited.
Another detailed account for the distinction of mass and count nouns refers to the concept of atomicity (Choi, Ionin, Zhun 2018). The concept of atomicity is not totally different from that one of boundless/bounded; it has to do with the parts that form an object. It calls atomic a noun that refers to an object whose parts constitute a different object. For instance a computer is formed by a screen and a keyboard, therefore it is atomic; salt or sugar are formed by small parts of the same substance, and they are considered non-atomic.
In English, non-atomic nouns are usually mass nouns while the atomic ones are count nouns; however, there are some exceptions to this general rule; for instance, words such as "furniture" or "jewelry" function as mass nouns in terms of plurality and singularity usage even though they are semantically atomic as they are formed by part that are not the same object. Therefore there is not total adherence in the way atomicity feature regards mass-count nouns is language specific.

3. Linguistics analysis of English and Italian
The aim of the present research is to find dissimilarities in the acquisition of English mass-count distinction between two groups of learners whose first language is different. The chosen languages are Italian and Chinese for the reason that the former behaves similarly to English while the latter works in a different way. If Chinese learners show the same learning ability of their Italian counterparts, the probable conclusion will be that the L1 transfer plays no role in the acquisition of the distinction of mass-count nouns in English and that it is the semantic of atomicity to be most important feature in this case.
English and Italian treatment of mass and count name is similar. Both language adopt a morphological distinction between singular and plural nouns and use the bare singular form only for mass noun. The two languages allow indefinite article, numerals and a specific classifier only with count nouns and bare singular and some classifiers for mass nouns.