On the acquisition of negation: What role does Universal Grammar play in first and second language acquisition?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3




Part I The syntax of negation in different languages 2

Part II First Language Acquisition
Acquisition of negation in Spanish, French and German
Acquisition of negation in English

Part III Second Language Acquisition


This Friday admired much; but when he came to taste the flesh, he took so many ways to tell me how well he liked it, that I could not but understand him … Friday began to talk pretty well, and understand the names of almost everything … And having learned him English so well that he could answer me almost any question … we began the following discourse …:

Master: But why did not your side recover you from the hands of your enemies, then?

Friday: They run one, two, three, and me, and make go in the canoe; my nation have no canoe that time. …

(from Robinson Crusoe, 232-234, bold print mine)

The ability to learn and produce natural language and move beyond the communication of sign and body language is unique to human beings. The acquisition of language is possible since grammar is assumed to be universal. Universal Grammar (UG) defines properties of language itself. Chomsky’s theory of grammar is constrained, first, by universal grammatical principles which determine the broad outline of grammar and are generally true and, second, by grammatical parameters which are language-specific dimensions of a particular language and allow crosslinguistic variation. The first doesn’t have to be learned since it is part of the innate language faculty; the latter needs to be acquired and is assumed to be linked to individual items in the lexicon (Capdevila I Batet et al. 1995, 31). The central task of acquisition is thus the construction of the grammar of the target language, in other words, the setting of parameters, which is also referred to as grammatical learning (versus lexical learning).

One of the parameters that needs to be set is the construction of negation. In this paper, I look at the nature and operation of negation (part I) and how children and adults acquire it during their first and second language acquisition process of different languages (parts II and III). Moreover, underlying principles and mechanisms of L1 and L2 acquisition will be discussed and compared. I want to investigate the way in which the principles and parameters of UG (do not) operate over time as the individual’s grammar gradually develops and find out if the children’s and adults’ grammars conform to these.

An individual acquiring L1 has to access the innate grammatical principals of UG in the initial state and learn the language-specific grammatical parameters. L1 acquisition is rapid, uniform and almost error-free. How the acquisition of negation for an L1-learner develops will be presented in the second part.

L2-learners have already learned an L1 and are expected to be competent users of the specific grammar of their first language. They learn a second language, i.e. determine a new setting for relevant grammatical parameters in order to arrive at a linguistic system of the target L2. Their acquisition is characterized by great variability crosslinguistically and across individual learners (Meisel 1997, 227). Part 3 looks at 2LA of negation and wants to describe whether 1LA and 2LA share similarities and if UG plays a role in 2LA.

Part I The syntax of negation in different languages

In this section, I will briefly review the negation of the main languages in question, namely English, German and (Colloquial) French. Not only do the negative elements vary from language to language, but also their position and possibly their origin and movements within the sentences.


English knows three negative forms: no, not and n’t of which the later is the cliticization of the second. No is used as a single-word negation, i.e. a quantificational negation (1), or as an anaphoric negation negating a previous statement (2). Not and n’t, respectively, are sentential negations in which the entire sentence is negated (3) (Schelletter 2000, 106; Stromwold et al. 1998, 235).

(1) There is no milk left.
(2) Do you want to go to the mall? – No, I want to go to the movies.
(3) I do not (don’t) want to go to the movies.

The word order in English is SVO and the underlying position of the verb is VP initial. To understand the position and origin of subject and negator, the VP-internal Subject Hypothesis will be taken into account. The subject NP within a sentence is generated within the maximal projection of the verb, namely SpecVP, and is then raised to SpecIP where it surfaces. The negation of a sentence has its own constituent in the sentence structure, namely NegP, which dominates VP but is subject to IP (see (4)):

(4) Subject raising and position of negation in English sentences

illustration not visible in this excerpt


illustration not visible in this excerpt

Joe does not like pizza

Stromwold et al. 1998, 233

English negation requires do-support. Sentences like (5) and (6) below are ungrammatical. Main verbs are generated under VP and cannot move further although they need to move to agreement to have their agreement features checked. Agreement features are weak in English (unlike French and German). Modals and auxiliaries are able to move beyond agreement and can therefore occur left to the negative element (Schelletter, 2000, 106) (see also (4) above). I will return to do-support below.

(5) *Joe not like pizza.

(6) *I not want to go to the movies.


German, just like English, has three negative forms which are nein (no), nicht (not) and kein (no). Anaphoric nein behaves like the English anaphoric no (7) and (8), whereas kein is a quantifier marked for the gender and case of the noun it modifies (9) and (10) (Stromswold et al. 1998, 236). Sentential negation nicht follows the finite verb and precedes the non-finite verb.

(7) Willst du mitkommen? – Nein!

Do you want to join us? – No!

(8) Nein, ich möchte ins Kino gehen.

No, I want to go to the movies.

(9) Es ist keine (f) Milch (f) mehr da.

There is no milk left.

(10) Es ist kein (m) Mann (m) im Raum.

There is no man in the room.

German is an SOV language with a V2-effect (although main clauses show SVO order as in English): in main clauses [-finite] is in final, [+finite] is in second position of the sentence structure (11a). In subordinate clauses, however, all verbal elements are in clause-final position with the order of [-finite] [+finite] (11b).

(11a) Peter wird[+] kommen [-].

Peter is going to come.

(11b) Ich weiß, dass Peter kommen [-] wird [+].

I know that Peter is going to come.

VP and IP are head final and since German’s SOV order has a V2-effect the finite verb has to move from V to I to C, driven by strong features in C. In CP it occupies the second position (result of V2 effect) (see (12)). A maximal projection has to rise to SpecCP. Nicht is not always adjoined to the finite verb, suggesting not to be the head of NegP. It is assumed to be adjoined to VP (Meisel 1997, 233).


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On the acquisition of negation: What role does Universal Grammar play in first and second language acquisition?
University of Cologne
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Lars Berghaus (Author), 2006, On the acquisition of negation: What role does Universal Grammar play in first and second language acquisition?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/74225


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