Reflexive Pronouns. The Acquisition of “Self-Forms” by German Learners of English as L2

Term Paper, 2016

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical background

3. Methodology

4. Results

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion


Appendix: Test

1. Introduction

Prior linguistic knowledge - it seems plausible that the acquisition of a second language[1] can be influenced by the learner’s knowledge of structures and rules of his or her first language[2]. Especially similarities between languages are probably tending to either facilitate the learning process or to impede it (cf. Gundel & Tarone 1994: 87). This cross-linguistic influence is called “language transfer”, which can be described as negative when the application of L1 structures or rules on a L2 utterance leads to a linguistically incorrect expression (cf. Saville-Troike 2012: 19). Given the fact that similarities between languages might impede the learning process of the L2, the work in hand takes a closer look at reflexive pronouns in English and German. As “self-forms” in English and “sich-forms” in German look quite similar but differ in their use, they appear as a possible source of error for German learners of English. Therefore, the leading question of the paper is whether L2 English learners recognize the differences in the use of “self-forms” in English and the use of “sich” in German. The hypothesis is that, based on their L1 knowledge, German learners of English are likely to make use of reflexive pronouns more often than necessary. In other words, it is assumed that a negative language transfer is likely to occur due to the formal similarities between the L1 and L2. Further information on the theoretical basis of the study will be given in the second chapter, followed by the part on methodology that includes information on the informants, the research instruments, and the data collection procedure. In the following two chapters, the results of the study will be presented and, with regard to possible explanations and limitations, discussed. Finally, the main findings of the paper will be summarized.

The reason for conducting this study is, in the first place, that the problem of language transfer is of great importance for the learner’s learning process of English as L2. Especially teachers of English should be aware of common sources of error, so they might be able to predict possible linguistic problems and support their students at their best to avoid such mistakes (cf. Odlin 1990: 4). Furthermore, previous studies in the field of cross-linguistic examinations on reflexive pronouns mainly referred to binding conditions and the like, whereas this paper deals with the frequency and correct application of reflexives by learners of English as L2. Therefore, 30 learners of English as L2, aged between 20 and 25, were asked to fill out an Acceptability Judgement Test[3] as well as an elicitation task. Beforehand, a pilot test was conducted with three native speakers of English in order to confirm the consistency of the research instruments.

2. Theoretical background

Even though reflexive pronouns in German and English appear formally similar at first sight, there are still some differences that need to be considered. First of all, German only uses a reflexive pronoun for the third person, “sich”, and a personal pronoun for the first and second person, which are referred to as reflexive pronouns as well, though (cf. König & Gast 2012:177). Furthermore, “sich” doesn’t inflect, whereas in English reflexive pronouns inflect for person, for number, and, in the third person singular, even for gender (cf. König & Gast 2012: 177, Quirk et al. 1985: 355). In order to understand the similarities and differences of reflexive pronouns in English and German beyond their formal appearance, the term needs to be defined. A short and precise cross-linguistic definition for reflexives of English and German can be found in König & Gast (2012: 169):

Reflexive pronouns are expressions indicating that an argument of a predicate is co-referent with another argument of the same predicate (a co-argument), typically with the subject. This co-argument is called the ‘ antecedent ’ of the reflexive pronoun. (original emphasis)

In other words, the main characteristic of a reflexive pronoun is its indication of two terms referring to the same entity (cf. Gast 2007: 155-156, Quirk et al.1985: 357), as in the following example:

Tom cut himself while he was shaving this morning.

(translation: Tom schnitt sich, als er sich heute morgen rasierte.)

In either case, the reflexive pronoun “himself “/ “sich” refers to the subject “Tom”, so it expresses co-reference. Reflexivity of a sentence can easily be tested by replacing the reflexive pronoun by the respective antecedent (cf. König & Gast 2012: 175). But reflexive pronouns can also occur in combination with reflexive verbs, which are verbs that require a reflexive object (cf. Quirk et a. 1985: 357). These reflexive verbs appear very frequently in German, whereas in English there are only a few such verbs (cf. König & Gast 2012: 178, Quirk et al. 1985: 357, Siemund 2014: 49). Apart from those verbs, there are also semi-reflexive verbs which don’t necessarily need a reflexive pronoun, and non-reflexive verbs which are simply transitive or intransitive (cf. Quirk et al. 1985: 358). In most cases, the latter is the typical counterpart in English for reflexive verbs in German (cf. König & Gast 2012: 179). These differences in the frequency of the use of reflexive forms are the main reason for the hypothesis of this study. It is assumed that German learners of English as L2 tend to make use of reflexive pronouns more often than necessary as there are many more occasions in German where “sich-forms” are used than in English.

Besides all this, in both languages there are also other uses of reflexive pronouns - or at least forms which look like reflexives - that actually don’t express co-reference. But as they are not the main issue of this paper, they are only mentioned briefly at this point and won’t be exemplified. First of all, in English there are forms looking like reflexive pronouns that are used in order to emphasize certain features of a sentence. As these forms are no real reflexives, they are called intensifiers (cf. Siemund 1998: 281). In German, on the contrary, intensifiers are not expressed by the use of reflexive pronouns, but by the form “selbst” (cf. Siemund 1998: 281). Reflexive forms in German are also used to express middle voice while English simply uses transitive or intransitive verbs (cf. König & Gast 2012: 176-177).

As already mentioned in the introduction, the concept of language transfer is central to this study as well. The role of language transfer in second language acquisition has long been a controversial topic, and even today there is still no consensus among linguists and language teachers about the significance of cross-linguistic influence (cf. Odlin 1990: 3). Nevertheless, many researchers claim that prior linguistic knowledge of L2 learners is something that has to be considered with regard to research on second language acquisition (e.g. Odlin 1990: 1-143, Gunde & Tarone 1994: 87-100, Zobl 1994: 176-196). Due to this, several studies regarding the acquisition of English reflexives by L2 learners and the problem of language transfer have already been conducted, which will be mentioned exemplarily in the following. One of the first to examine the relation between English reflexives and language transfer was Thomas (1989), who took a closer look at reflexive binding by learners of L2. She worked with 96 L2 learners of English from 20 different countries who responded to a multiple-choice-questionnaire. Her main finding was that there was negative language transfer, indeed, but she claimed that this could not be the reason for all kinds of mistakes that were made by the informants (cf. Thomas 1989: 298). She didn’t mention any alternative explanation, though. The same applies to a study by Felser & Cunnings (2009) who focused on the processing of reflexives of English as L2 by German learners. They used two eye-movement experiments in combination with a multiple-choice questionnaire and concluded that the linguistic mistakes made by the learners could not be due to cross-linguistic influence alone (cf. Felser & Cunnings 2009: 571). Nevertheless, they didn’t mention possible alternative explanations for the results and it is questionable whether eye-movement tests are a reliable source for findings in linguistics, and, in addition to that, if the eye-movement tests’ results rather correlated to the mistakes made by the learners than explaining or proving them.

But besides the studies that refuse L1 influence as an explanation for errors in L2, there are also the ones that claim to affirm the negative transfer. Especially the study by Hirakawa (1990) needs to be mentioned here as it is still renowned as one of the main works in this field. He examined how native speakers of Japanese acquire syntactic properties of English reflexive pronouns. Therefore, he used a multiple-choice grammaticality judgement test and found that all errors made by the participants can be explained by language transfer of their L1 knowledge (cf. Hirakawa 1990: 80). These findings were validated later by Bennett (1994) and Lee (2008). Bennett examined the L1 transfer in L2 acquisition of reflexive binding by Serbo-Croatian learners of English by using a picture identification task and a multiple-choice questionnaire. Her findings indicated that the informants transferred their prior linguistic knowledge to their L2 utterances (cf. Bennett 1994: 152-153). Thus, Bennett’s findings contradict the ones found by Thomas. In addition to that, Lee focused on the reflexive binding as well by using a multiple-choice questionnaire on Korean learners of English, and she came to the conclusion, namely that there was L1 transfer of reflexive binding conditions to L2 (Lee 2008: 108). So, even though the findings of the different studies are dissenting, it is likely that the learners’ prior linguistic knowledge has great influence on their L2 acquisition process. Indicative for this is for one thing the fact that none of the studies mentioned above claims language transfer to be completely unaccountable for linguistic errors regarding reflexive pronouns - some of those even consider language transfer to be the main reason; for another thing, the relation of reflexive pronouns and negative language transfer was examined and verified for a variety of languages, which is indicative of the confirmation of the language transfer hypothesis.

3. Methodology

The group of informants consisted of 30 learners of English, aged between 20 and 25 (mean age of 22.9 years), whose L1 is German. 17 of them are female, 13 are male. The participants don’t attend school anymore or study English or the like at university, i.e. they are not exposed to English in an instructional context. This condition had been confirmed beforehand in order to find 30 appropriate participants for the study. All of them learned English for six to 13 years at school (mean length of 9.0 years), starting at the age of six to 11. Their proficiency level was considered to range between low-intermediate and intermediate and their exposure to English in their everyday-life was limited to films, music, and occasional interactions with non-German-speaking tourists. The pilot test for the verification of the research instruments’ consistency was conducted with three English native speakers from Vancouver, BC, Canada. They are aged between 22 and 61, one of them is female and two are male. Their results resembled each other and there were no major discrepancies between their answers. By this, the research instruments’ consistency seems to be constituted.

The test (cf. Appendix) was distributed at a single session to all of the informants and the researcher was present at all times during the data collection procedure. The test consisted of two parts, firstly an AJT with 20 sentences (40% tokens and 60% fillers) and secondly an elicitation task with six sentences and the same amount of blanks. The AJT was handed out first, so that the informants would not have a look at the elicitation task and know what was going to be tested. For the AJT, the participants were asked to state whether the sentences sounded “correct”, “rather correct”, “rather wrong”, or “wrong” to them . Eight of the sentences tested the informants’ indirect knowledge about reflexive pronouns, the other 12 sentences served as distracters so that the aim of the study would not be obvious for the participants. Four of the sentences of interest should have been identified as correct, the other four as incorrect. It took the group between ten and 15 minutes to finish the AJT. In hindsight, it would have been a sensible supplement to let the informants correct those sentences they stated as wrong, because eventually one can’t be sure that it really was the reflexive pronoun of the sentence that disturbed them. It could easily have been another element of the sentence.

After the informants had finished the AJT, the elicitation task was handed out for the testing of the participants’ direct knowledge. It took the group about five to eight minutes to fill in the blanks. The informants were asked to fill in a reflexive pronoun (all of them were mentioned in the task) in the blanks where it is necessary. If they think that none is needed, they should put in an X. In order to avoid adulterated results, the German translation was given for each sentence. In this way it was made sure that no one put in something due to a lack of understanding. Nevertheless, it is difficult to interpret results where the informants put in the wrong reflexive pronoun because it was only assumed that they might put in the formally correct reflexive, i.e. the correct inflection for person, number and gender, where it is not necessary. Basically, these information cannot be processed with regard to the hypothesis of this paper. Nevertheless, both of the research instruments seem to be reliable for gathering first few information in this area, especially as direct and indirect knowledge testing are covered. At the end, the participants were asked for some personal details including their gender, age, mother tongue, the amount of years they had learned English at school, the regularity of getting in contact with the English language, and, relating to that, on what occasions.


[1] In the following referred to as L2.

[2] In the following referred to as L1.

[3] In the following referred to as AJT.

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Reflexive Pronouns. The Acquisition of “Self-Forms” by German Learners of English as L2
University of Bonn
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reflexive, pronouns, acquisition, self-forms”, german, learners, english
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Deborah Heinen (Author), 2016, Reflexive Pronouns. The Acquisition of “Self-Forms” by German Learners of English as L2, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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