The Acquisition of a Morphosyntactic Variable in Spanish:

The Acquisition of a Morphosyntactic Variable in Spanish:
The Analytic and Synthetic Forms of Present Progressive
Stephen Fafulas
Indiana University
The current study adds to the growing body of literature on the acquisition of variable
structures in Spanish as a second language (Geeslin, forthcoming 2010). In doing so, it
sheds light on a generally unexplored area of research in the field: the acquisition of the
Spanish present progressive (Bardovi-Harlig, 2000). To achieve this goal, data on both
native and non-native use of the simple present (synthetic) and present progressive
(analytic) forms of present progressive aspect in Spanish were collected. A total of 24
participants (6 native Spanish speakers, 6 near-native, 6 advanced level, and 6
intermediate level L1 English learners of Spanish) completed a written preference task in
the target language. The instrument was previously coded for the linguistic factors of
lexical aspect (stative, activity, accomplishment, achievement) and semantic value of the
adverb (habitual, immediate), which have been found to influence native speaker
selection of these forms (Fafulas, 2009). The results obtained from the multivariate
analysis of the current study show that lexical aspect, semantics of the adverb, and
participant group are all significant factors in predicting selection of the synthetic,
analytic, or both verb forms, by learners of Spanish as a second language.
0. Introduction
A number of previous studies have investigated the second language (L2)
development of tense and aspect following the suppositions of what is commonly referred
to as the aspect hypothesis 1 (Andersen & Shirai, 1995). The premise of this hypothesis,
that the inherent semantic aspect of verbs and predicates influences learner development
of tense-aspect morphology, has been well documented (Bardovi-Harlig, 2000) and is
fundamental to the current investigation. The majority of studies employing this
framework have focused on learner morphological development (imperfective vs.
perfective) of ‘pastness’, and the evolution of this aspect over time (Andersen, 1986;
Bardovi-Harlig, 1998; see section 2.4 for a more detailed review). These studies have led
to a richer understanding of how learners form their initial form-meaning associations
and of subsequent development of these connections over time (i.e. the one-to-one
*I am indebted to Kimberly Geeslin, Manuel Díaz-Campos, César Félix-Brasdefer, and Kathleen BardoviHarlig for their encouragement, inspiration, and continued assistance on this project. Additionally, the
current version of the paper has benefited tremendously from the commentary provided by 2 reviewers, the
editor, Scott Lamana, Greg Newall, and many colleagues from the IU Department of Spanish and
Portuguese. Of course all errors remain my own.
See Bardovi-Harlig 2000 for a comprehensive review of tense and aspect studies from a functionalist
principle and multi-functionality; Andersen, 1984; Bardovi-Harlig, 2000). Not only has
this line of research deepened our understanding of second language learners’
acquisitional processes but it has additionally provided insight into language universals
and the way in which native speakers may process linguistic data.
Another particularly fruitful area of investigation that has shed light on both L1 and
L2 acquisition has been the study of those areas where native speakers’ (NS) use of a
structure varies in the native language and, how in turn, learners incorporate this
information into their evolving interlanguage grammar (Geeslin, 2003, forthcoming
2010; Gudmestad, 2006). As far as L2 Spanish morphosyntactic variation is concerned,
studies on copula contrast (Geeslin, 2000, 2003), mood distinction (Gudmestad, 2006),
future time expression (Geeslin & Gudmestad, forthcoming), and leísmo (Geeslin,
2008) have been carried out. The present study addresses another variable
morphosyntactic structure in Spanish: alternation of the present progressive (analytic) and
simple present (synthetic) verb forms.
Empirical studies on learner production of present progressive aspect are relatively
scarce. As far as Spanish L2 acquisition is concerned, to my knowledge, no previous
study has specifically sought to address learner usage of the simple present and present
progressive forms in light of L1 variability. Previous findings on native speaker
variability of present progressive aspect in Spanish (Fafulas, 2009; Fafulas & Killam,
2010; Torres Cacoullos, 2000) indicate that an analysis based on errors will be
insufficient in accounting for learner use of these forms. In order to specifically address
this issue, the present study employs a written contextualized questionnaire and
establishes a native speaker baseline by which to evaluate learner usage of these forms in
similar contexts.
1. Background
1.1 Lexical and Grammatical Aspect
The current study examines the role of lexical aspect, among other factors, in the
acquisition of progressive aspect by learners of Spanish as a second language. Evidence
that lexical aspect is one of the key factors that influence native speaker selection of the
analytic and synthetic verb forms (discussed below) in present progressive contexts
comes from Fafulas (2009), Fafulas & Killam (2010), Klein (1980), Marquez-Martínez
(2010), and Torres Cacoullos (2009). Given the present study’s focus on both tense and
aspect, a basic review of these concepts follows.
Tense, which locates an event on a timeline, such as past or present, is a deictic
category anchored in the implied reference point at the time of speech (Comrie, 1985).
Aspect, on the other hand, refers to the inherent temporal makeup of a verb or predicate
(Comrie, 1976). This inherent temporal makeup, such as whether a verb depicts an
action with inherent duration (talk or sleep), is punctual (recognize or notice), or has
elements of both leading up to a point of culmination (paint a painting), has been
documented to play a fundamental role in the acquisition process (Bardovi-Harlig &
Reynolds, 1995). For example, (1a) below, John runs (present) vs. John ran (past),
illustrates a contrast along the tense dimension. On the other hand, (1b) John runs
(simple present) and John is running (present progressive), displays a difference of
grammatical aspect (note that both are in the present tense).
(1) a. Tense
John runs (present)
John ran (past)
b. Grammatical Aspect
John runs (simple present)
John is running (present progressive)
Importantly, although a single verb such as run in example (1b) may show a contrast in
grammatical aspect, its inherent lexical aspect remains the same. A challenge then, at
least in the case of Spanish, is that an L2 learner must come to understand the interaction
of both morphologically marked (grammatical) aspect and the inherent (lexical) aspect of
the verb or predicate.
Vendler (1967) was one of the first to capture these notions in his categorization of
four aspectual classes: states, activities, accomplishments, and achievements. Three
further semantic features (punctual, telic, and dynamic) can be used to distinguish these
aspectual classes from one another. Punctuality denotes something which happens
instantaneously and lacks duration. Telicity is identifiable as an action with a specific
endpoint. Dynamicity indicates change as well as a lack of stativity. Under this
framework, stative verbs (STA) such as querer (to want), differ from the other three
categories in that they lack dynamicity [- dynamic] and persist over time without being
affected by mental or physical action. On the other hand, activities (ACT),
accomplishments (ACC), and achievements (ACH), are all dynamic [+ dynamic]. These
last three aspectual classes may be distinguished from one another using the features of
duration and telicity. Achievements and accomplishments are both [+ telic], while
activities and states are both [- telic] and have no specific endpoint. Activities and
accomplishments are both [-punctual] whereas achievements are [+ punctual] and as such
capture the beginning or end of an event. For example, the difference between caminar
‘walk’ (activity) and caminar 5km ‘walk 5 km’ (accomplishment) is that the former lacks
a specifiable endpoint whereas the latter denotes completion in that once one ‘walks
5km’, the event will be over. Achievement verbs on the other hand, such as llegar
‘arrive’ in llegar a la fiesta ‘arrive at the party’, mark something that happens in an
instant [+ punctual].
Tables 1 and 2 below capture these notions of verbal aspectual class and provide
some examples from both English and Spanish.
Table 1: Semantic features of verbal aspectual classes
Table 2: Examples of verbal aspectual classes
STA know, believe, want
ACT walk, sing, play
ACC sing a song, walk 5 km
ACH wake up, arrive
saber, creer, querer
caminar, cantar, jugar
cantar una canción, caminar 5 km
despertarse, llegar
1.2 Differences and Similarities: Spanish and English Progressive Aspect
English and Spanish differ in their expression of present progressive aspect. In
Spanish, two verb forms, the synthetic (simple present) and analytic (present progressive)
are both capable of encoding the meaning of ‘action in progress’ while in English one
verb form, the analytic (be + V-ing), predominates. This is illustrated in example (2)
(2) a. Synthetic verb form:
b. Analytic verb form:
Mira, sale ahora el sol.
Look, comes-out now the sun.
(*‘Look, the sun comes out now.’)
Mira, está saliendo ahora el sol.
Look, is coming-out now the sun.
‘Look, the sun is coming out now.’
In English, the predominant way of encoding progressive aspect in the present tense
is with the construction auxiliary + progressive participle (be + V-ing). That is, while
English obligatorily uses the analytic verb form for present progressive aspect, in Spanish
a speaker has the option to use an analytic and synthetic form. Importantly, while both
English and Spanish prefer use of the synthetic verb form for habitual meaning, in
Spanish the synthetic verb form may also encode progressive meaning.
In a study that looked at past tense progressive contexts, Westfall (1995) affirms that
in Spanish these two verb forms are compatible, that the duration of one is not less than
the other, and that semantically they are the same. Bardovi-Harlig (2000: 212) states that
the Spanish progressive (Juan está cantando ‘Juan is singing’) can be expressed without
loss of progressive meaning with the non-progressive (Juan canta), whereas English
obligatorily uses one form. Comrie (1976) asserts that the synthetic form can replace the
analytic form without excluding progressive meaning in Spanish. Koontz-Garboden
(2004: 1294) states that while the two Spanish verb forms overlap in meaning, in that
both can be used with progressive aspect, they only overlap in truth-conditional meaning
partially: ‘The progressive interpretation tends to be the only interpretation available for
the analytic form, but the synthetic form also has a habitual interpretation that tends to be
the only way of expressing habitual meaning’. Finally, Butt & Benjamin (2000) declare
that while the analytic adds a nuance to present progressive contexts it does not
substantially differ in meaning from use of the synthetic form, resulting in a virtual
interchangeability of these constructions 2. At the same time the authors note a common,
But see Lamana (2008) for a review of authors who argue for a distinction in meaning of these two forms.
but not empirically documented assumption: that English-speaking learners of Spanish
constantly over-use the present progressive form.
1.3 Theoretical Framework for the Study of Tense and Aspect
Previous research has shown an associative bias in learner distribution of verbal
morphology and lexical type, resulting in the following recognizable patterns: preterit
morphology most often with telic verbs, imperfect morphology most often with states,
and progressive morphology predominantly with activities (Bardovi-Harlig, 2000). This
notion was first implemented in second language acquisition research under what is
commonly referred to as the aspect hypothesis (Andersen & Shirai, 1995). This
hypothesis predicts that both first and second language learners will initially be guided by
the inherent lexical aspect of verbs and predicates in the acquisition of tense and
grammatical aspect. Using the aspectual verbal classes mentioned above, the aspect
hypothesis gives rise to four testable claims (Bardovi-Harlig, 2000):
(3) a Learners first use perfective past markings on achievements and
accomplishments and only later spread this use to activities and states.
b Perfective appears before imperfective, in languages that distinguish between
these two, and imperfective use begins with statives and passes to activities,
accomplishments, and finally achievements in that order.
c In languages that have this aspect, progressive marking begins with activities,
extending next to accomplishments and finally achievements.
d Progressive marking is not incorrectly overextended to statives.
This hypothesis predicts that the lexical aspect of verbs and predicates will guide
learners in the acquisition of grammatical aspect. Relevant to the current study, it
provides testable claims in that (present) progressive aspect should initially be marked
with activity verbs, only later expanding to accomplishments and then achievements.
Further, present progressive usage should not be overextended to state verbs. An
implication of this hypothesis is that as learners approach a more native-like grammar,
they will begin to consider both grammatical and inherent lexical aspect. As for native
speakers, the distributional bias (Andersen, 1993; Andersen & Shirai, 1995) posits similar
tendencies in that preterit morphology occurs more often with telic verbs, imperfective
morphology more often with atelic verbs, and progressive morphology more often with
durative verbs. At the same time the distributional bias allows for variation in native
speaker pairing of verbal morphology with inherent lexical aspect, such that speakers
may manipulate these in order to highlight their perspective on an event. A final
principle of the aspect hypothesis, the congruence principle, may help explain why
activity verbs are marked most frequently with progressive morphology, at least in
English 3 . The congruence principle states that the more similar the meaning of a
morpheme is to the lexical item it attaches to, the stronger the form-meaning connection
will be. So in English, the morpheme -ing has a strong form-meaning connection with
activity verbs given that these contain the semantic features (+ dynamic, - punctual),
See Torres Cacoullos (2009) for a discussion of the evolution of the Spanish progressive as an
obligatory marker of action in progress.
evidenced by the fact that this is the primary way to mark action in progress in English
(Bybee et. al 1994).
The current study focuses on these claims as they relate to the acquisition and
variation of present progressive aspect in Spanish (as both an L1 and L2). In her review
of previous studies on tense and aspect, Hasbún (1995; 4) concludes that ‘… further
study is needed to determine how similar the biases observed for learners and native
speakers of a given language are and to speculate why these biases occur’. Although
outside the scope of the current paper, this line of research could have bigger picture
implications for linguistic theory, such as whether learners’ behavior of these forms as
compared to native speakers is best explained as part of linguistic universals or as inputdriven phenomena.
1.4 Previous Research on Acquisition of Tense and Aspect
The aspect hypothesis has been tested on a variety of languages, mostly to account for
the acquisition of ‘pastness’ in learner interlanguage grammar. More specifically, these
studies focused on the aspectual distinction between the preterit and imperfect forms (see
Bardovi-Harlig, 2000 for a comprehensive overview). Again, this preterit-imperfective
bias is not completely surprising given that Andersen’s original studies (1986, 1991),
leading to the formulation of the aspect hypothesis, were designed to account for the
order of emergence of learner past-tense morphology. In contrast only minimal attention
has been paid to the acquisition of present progressive aspect or what can be thought of as
a learner’s means of expressing action in progress at the present moment. For instance,
in the romance languages, to my knowledge only Giacalone Ramat (1995) has studied the
(Italian) progressive under the aspect hypothesis. Furthermore, in the concluding sections
of her comprehensive monograph on Tense and Aspect in SLA, Bardovi-Harlig (2000)
reports that studies focusing exclusively on the progressive are still rare.
Bardovi-Harlig reports that before the year 2000, the progressive had only been
studied extensively under the aspect hypothesis in the second language acquisition of
Italian (Giacalone Ramat, 1995), English (Bardovi-Harlig, 1998), and Japanese (Shirai,
1998). The findings of the studies she reviews are as follows: in Italian, Giacalone
Ramat (1995) observed that 63% of all progressive tokens occurred with activity verbs,
22% with mental states, and that only in later stages were accomplishments and
achievements used with the progressive (8% and 4% respectively). In Japanese L2
acquisition, Shirai (1998) documented that the progressive was used in over half of all
contexts with activities. Similarly, in English a strong correlation was found between
activities and the progressive (Bardovi-Harlig, 1998). In conclusion, Bardovi-Harlig
(2000; 234) states: ‘the review of the literature shows that several studies of a range of
target languages provide evidence in support of one or more claims concerning the
effects of lexical aspect proposed by the aspect hypothesis’.
1.5 Relevant Tense and Aspect Studies on Spanish
As previously mentioned, the vast majority of Spanish L2 tense and aspect studies
have focused on the emergence and subsequent development of the preterit and imperfect
in learner language. Although none of these studies specifically focused on present
progressive aspect, they add to our understanding of the L2 acquisition of tense-aspect in
Spanish. The first of these which deserves mention comes from Andersen (1986, 1991)
who was able to identify eight stages of acquisition for the preterit and imperfect, in the
interlanguages of two English-speaking children learning Spanish. This is the work that
led Andersen to the formulation of the aspect hypothesis. Ramsay (1990) tested the
aspect hypothesis on adult learners of Spanish. The findings were similar to those
predicted by Andersen in that achievements and accomplishments tended to appear more
frequently with the preterit whereas states and activities generally emerged with the
imperfect. Subsequent studies such as those carried out by Hasbún (1995) and Salaberry
(1999) provided somewhat mixed results regarding the aspect hypothesis 4 but
nevertheless documented some stages of development in which learners were guided by
the inherent lexical aspect of verbs. Cadierno (2000) and Liskin-Gasparro (2000)
furthered the previous research by incorporating more proficient learners into their
studies. In these studies the advanced learners were more native-like in that they used
grammatical forms, both preterit and imperfect, with different verbal predicates based on
their lexical aspect. It is important to note that the advanced learners in both these studies
continued to show an influence of verbal lexical semantics, as natives do, but they were
able to move from a one-to-one mapping to multi-functionality, furthering Andersen’s
original hypothesis.
Although they did not specifically seek to account for the acquisition of progressive
aspect, the following studies report data relevant to the current investigation given that
they test factors which predict native speaker selection of the synthetic and analytic
forms, as well as influence from English. One study of particular interest is that of Klein
(1980) who compared 8 Spanish monolinguals from Puerto Rico with 10 Spanish-English
bilinguals living in New York City. Her methodology consisted of a semi-structured oral
interview and a picture description task, which she designed to test for convergence 5.
Given the aforementioned differences between the progressive aspect in English and
Spanish, Klein hypothesized that these groups might differ regarding their use of the
analytic and synthetic verb forms in their expression of present progressive aspect in
Spanish. Her results show a statistically significant difference in that the Spanish
monolinguals used the synthetic (simple present) form for progressive aspect (26%,
n=63) more than the bilinguals (6%, n=18). Klein concludes that the data are in support
of her hypothesis for convergence in that the bilinguals are subconsciously aligning their
L1 with the L2. In other words, the bilinguals favor the analytic form more than the
monolinguals given that the analytic form aligns the Spanish system more closely with
the English system without affecting grammaticality from the perspective of monolingual
Spanish norms. Klein posits that social factors are largely at work in this shift; i.e. the
bilinguals are exposed more frequently to the L2 English data which obligatorily marks
progressive aspect with the analytic form, and furthermore, English is the prestigious
language of the NYC speech community. While the study shows an increase in use of
the present progressive it does not account for the factors which underlie native speaker
See Montrul & Salaberry (2003) for a critical review of studies carried out in Spanish under the Aspect
This term was named ‘Indirect Transfer’ by Silva- Corvalán (1994) which relates to convergence in Klein
(1980). Normally in the SLA literature transfer refers to the carry over of an L1 feature to the L2 system,
but in this case it is the inverse effect: the L2 influences/changes the L1 system.
selection of these forms to begin with. At the same time, although Klein reports that the
monolinguals residing in New York could not speak English, it is nevertheless
conceivable that they had knowledge of the language. Finally, it is not clear whether the
speakers were actually evaluated in similar contexts given the author transcribed the data
into English and then made intuition judgments on her own.
A study which specifically sets out to account for the linguistic factors which govern
native speaker selection of these forms comes from Fafulas (2009). In this study the
author established a different way of analyzing the usage/variation of the simple present
and present progressive forms, reporting on data from 10 monolingual Spanish and 10
bilingual Spanish-English speakers. The methodology of the study, a 20 item
contextualized questionnaire, was designed as a way to present participants with identical
contexts by which to evaluate their use of these forms (see Geeslin 2003 and
methodology of current study for a detailed explanation). All sentences were previously
coded for the linguistic variables of verbal aspectual category (stative, activity,
accomplishment, achievement) and semantic value of the adverb (habitual or immediate).
The data, including the extralinguistic variables of bilingualism and gender, were
analyzed with the statistical program GoldVarb X (Sankoff, Tagliamonte & Smith, 2005).
The results of the study showed that acceptability of both forms (variation) was produced
in a considerable number of contexts. As far as the monolinguals are concerned, they
accepted use of the present progressive form in 40.6% of the contexts provided, a higher
than expected number given the results of previous studies such as Cortés-Torres (2005),
which reported a 22% usage rate for the progressive form. This finding led the author to
conclude that the use of the analytic (present progressive) form is more wide-spread in
Spanish monolingual communities than previously believed (similar to the proposals of
Quesada 1995 and Torres Cacoullos 2000), while at the same time its usage may be
increased by contact with English. A further finding is that other factors aside from
bilingualism (Klein, 1980) were found to be more significant predictors of the use of the
forms under investigation. That is, stative verbs almost categorically disfavored variation,
as they strongly favored the simple present form, while dynamic verbs (activities,
achievements, and accomplishments) all favored variation. Again, of importance were
the following findings: that variation of the simple present and present progressive was
found in a large number of contexts, that semantics of the adverb and lexical-aspectual
class of the verb are significant factors in predicting the use of both forms in identical
contexts, and lastly that monolinguals accepted the use of the present progressive in more
contexts than prescriptively prescribed.
The current study seeks to build on this previous literature in a number of ways.
First, it gathers empirical data regarding learner usage of the analytic and synthetic verb
forms of the Spanish present progressive. Second, it uses native speaker data of these
forms in similar contexts (Geeslin, 2003) in order to establish a baseline by which
learners can be measured, thus uncovering the linguistic/contextual factors which
influence both native and non-native use of these forms. Lastly, it tests the influence of
lexical aspect on English learners of Spanish as a second language and relates these
findings to the Aspect Hypothesis.
2. Identifying the target: acquisition of the synthetic and analytic forms
of present progressive aspect in Spanish
The overarching goal of the present investigation is to begin a line of research which
can measure the influence of the linguistic and extralinguistic factors in the L2
acquisition of Spanish progressive aspect in the present tense. An account of the
variation between the synthetic and analytic verb forms in native Spanish is essential to
achieving this goal. Previous work on the (L2) acquisition of linguistic structures which
vary in native speaker speech, has called for a radical departure in the way learner data is
investigated (see Geeslin, 2000; 2003). Specifically, research on the acquisition of the
Spanish copula and subjunctive has shown that an analysis based on learners’ errors is
insufficient in accounting for the development of these structures in learner language
(Geeslin, 2003; Gudmestad, 2006). Alternatively, these studies have employed a more
productive means of comparing native and non-native data (discussed below) by
establishing a native-speaker baseline by which to judge how learners align with native
speaker norms (Geeslin 2003).
Research Questions
(1) Do the factors of lexical aspect and semantics of the adverb predict selection of
the simple present and present progressive for learners of Spanish? Do these factors
change or remain the same based on proficiency level?
(2) In which specific contexts do native speakers allow variation of these forms and
in turn how does learner usage model this?
(3) What can the learners of this study inform us about predictions (3c) and (3d) of
the Aspect Hypothesis outlined above?
2.1 Methodology
A total of 24 people from the same mid-western university participated in the study.
These participants were divided into the following groups: The first is comprised of 6
learners from an intermediate level Spanish class (S250), the last level needed to fulfill
the undergraduate foreign language requirement for this language. The second group is
comprised of 6 learners at the advanced level (S326), an introductory course in Spanish
Linguistics which requires an advanced level of competency in Spanish. The third group
consists of 6 near-native Spanish speakers, all graduate students and instructors of
Spanish, with a first language of English. The final group is made up of 6 native Spanish
speakers, all of whom were born in either Latin America or Spain and who had
immigrated to the USA after the age of 18.
2.2 Procedure and Instruments
All participants completed a background questionnaire eliciting place of origin, years
of study and familiarity with Spanish and English, travel and residence in Spanish- and
English-speaking countries, and other information such as age, sex, and level of
education. In addition, all participants completed a written preference task based on
previous research which employed a similar instrument (Fafulas, 2009; Geeslin, 2003;
Gudmestad, 2006). The results gathered from the instrument used in these previous
studies proved its effectiveness in controlling the linguistic variables and providing
similar contexts by which to evaluate learners and native speakers.
The written preference task contained a series of 12 contextualized items written in
the target language (appendix A). The instructions required participants to mark one of
the three options following each context in order to indicate what they would say in the
given situation. As shown in example (3) 6, all sentences were designed to include the
factors of verbal aspectual category (states, activities, achievements, accomplishments)
and semantic value of the adverb (giving the situation a habitual or immediate reading).
Rebecca le cuenta a su amiga sobre su rutina diaria. Ella le dice:
(‘Rebecca tells her friend about her daily routine. She says:’)
A. “Estoy corriendo en el parque todos los días después de la escuela.”
(‘I am running in the park every day after school’.)
B. “Corro en el parque todos los días después de la escuela.”
(‘I run in the park every day after school.’)
___ Prefiero A.
___ Prefiero B.
___ Ambos.
(I prefer A.)
(I prefer B.)
Coding: correr ‘to run’ [+ activity] todos los días ‘every day’ [+ habitual]
The reading of the adverbs as either habitual or immediate was defined as follows: for
habitual adverbs the action or event is repeated over a span of time, as in the adverb todos
los días (every day); regarding adverbs leading to an immediate reading, such as ahora
(now), the criterion was defined as an event occurring at the moment of speech and not
passing into the future. The coded data were then entered into the statistical program
GoldVarb X (Sankoff, Tagliamonte & Smith, 2005), which evaluates how the
independent (linguistic/extralinguistic) variables interact with the dependent variable.
The regression analysis used in this program measures the probabilistic weight of each
independent variable in relation to the application value (synthetic/analytic/both). A
weight above .5 indicates that the particular factor in question favors the selected
application value, while a weight below .5 indicates a disfavoring effect.
3. Results and Discussion
3.1 Acquisition of a Variable Structure
A total of 288 tokens were coded and analyzed for the current discussion. The results
of the statistical analysis presented in Table 4 include all significant factor groups
selected by the program for the application value both 7.
English gloss is provided here, and in the appendix, for the reader. The English text did not
appear for any of the participants; only the text in the target language (i.e. Spanish) was presented to them.
For purposes of the discussion I consider the selection of both by participants as their indication
that both forms are equally possible in that given context. It should be recalled that participants were
indicated to choose the option they would say in a given context. Most important is the fact that both
learners and natives were very selective in employing the both option.
Table 4: Factor groups selected as significant by GoldVarb X when the dependent variable was
both. Input 0.126 Log likelihood -112.512 Significance 0.026
Factor Groups
Lexical Aspect of
the Verb
18.4% (9/49)
Range 0.458
9.7% (7/72)
Proficiency Level
Near Native
Range 0.391
Semantic Value of
Range 0.271
First, consider the factor group of lexical aspect of the verb. As indicated by the
range 8 (0.458), this factor group is the most important of the three in determining
selection of both forms by participants. The factor favoring both selected by the model
for verbal aspectual class is achievements (0.718). In other words the lexical aspectual
class of achievements favors acceptability of both the present progressive and present
simple forms. Given that achievements are both [+] punctual and [+] dynamic the
acceptance of both forms may indicate that speakers recognize a selection of one or the
other form (analytic/synthetic) would strengthen either of these semantic properties; thus
depending on speaker viewpoint both forms are possible. The aspectual lexical class of
accomplishments is practically split down the middle (0.494) and could be interpreted as
neither favoring nor disfavoring usage of both forms. The other two aspectual verbal
classes, activities (0.373) and states (0.260), disfavor permissibility of both forms under
investigation. The strongest argument as to why states and activities should disfavor a
selection of both is that, because of their semantic features, they are strongly associated
with the simple present and present progressive forms (respectively) in Spanish.
The range is found by subtracting the lowest probabilistic weight of the factor group from the
highest. The closer the value is to 1, the stronger its effect for the model. This is common practice in
variationist studies in sociolinguistics.
Activities are both [+] dynamic and [-] telic, this links them to the present progressive,
while states lack the semantic features of punctuality, telicity, and dynamicity so that they
are almost categorically paired with the simple present.
These results are largely in line with the findings of the previous studies mentioned
above as well as the predictions of the Aspect Hypothesis (Andersen & Shirai, 1995).
That is, states and activities strongly favor one form over the other, not both, and most
importantly learners show sensitivity to both grammatical and inherent lexical aspect, as
expected in attainment of a mature grammar (Cadierno, 2000; Liskin-Gasparro, 2000).
The next most significant factor group is proficiency level. The favoring groups
selected for proficiency level were native (0.682) and near-native (0.558). In other words
the native and near-native groups significantly favor the selection of both forms over the
other two groups. The advanced group almost reached favoring status (0.474) while the
intermediate group (0.291) clearly disfavored such usage. What is most striking about
these results is the steady increase from intermediate to advanced to near-native, and
finally to native, for the selection of both forms. This means that as learners gain
proficiency they increase their acceptance of both forms and move toward a L2 grammar
which permits variation similar to native speaker usage. These results could be
interpreted as evidence that learners are moving from a one-to-one mapping of verbal
aspectual class with each form toward a system incorporating multi-functionality, as
predicted in Andersen’s 1:1 and multi-functionality principles (Andersen & Shirai, 1995).
Although a longitudinal study is needed to test these claims in greater detail, my
prediction is that the results shown here would hold.
The final factor group selected, semantic value of the adverb, reveals that immediate
(0.596) and habitual (0.585) adverbs slightly favor a selection of both, while when no
adverb is present a disfavoring effect occurs (0.325). In other words, when additional
contextual cues are present (adverbs), the overall interpretation of the predicate is
substantially different than when no adverb is provided. This indicates that a lack of
additional contextual cues increases the importance of lexically and morphologically
marked aspect, as these may be the only way to distinguish durative from punctual
situations, for example. In turn then, absence of an adverb strongly reduces the
permissibility of both forms given that speakers rely on the inherent aspect of the verb
and its interaction with morphological marking.
3.2 Predictors of use for the Spanish Present Progressive form
We now turn to Table 5 to consider those linguistic features which predict selection
of the present progressive form in Spanish. For this part of the analysis the application
value was selection of the analytic form by participants.
Table 5: Factor groups selected as significant by GoldVarb X when the dependent variable was
the present progressive form. Input 0.133 Log likelihood -106.187 Significance 0.000
Factor Groups
Semantic Value of
47.9 (46/96)
No adverb
7.3 (7/96)
Range: 0.538
9.4 (9/96)
36.1 (26/72)
40.8 (20/49)
10.5 (10/95)
8.3 (6/72)
Lexical Aspect of
the Verb
Range: 0.516
First, consider the factor group semantic value of the adverb. Within this factor
group, adverbs of immediacy (ahora ‘right now’) strongly favor selection of the present
progressive form (0.835). This can be explained by the fact that the semantic value of
these adverbs adds to the already inherent aspect of the present progressive of ongoing
action at the time of speech (Bardovi-Harlig, 2000). The fact that adverbs with a
semantic value of habitualness do not favor the present progressive form (0.297) can best
be interpreted as a clear indication that these adverbs favor the simple present form. This
is logical given that continuous and repetitive activity has generally been expressed by
way of the simple present form in Spanish (Quesada, 1995).
Regarding the factor group lexical aspect of the verb, activities (0.765) and
accomplishments (0.717) significantly favor selection of the present progressive. This is
in line with the majority of studies mentioned above and the congruence principle of the
Aspect Hypothesis (Andersen & Shirai, 1995). Activities and accomplishments share the
semantic features of [-] punctual and [+] dynamic. Arguably this is evidence that there
exists a similar form-meaning connection for the Spanish morpheme –ndo as for the -ing
morpheme in English. These results seem to provide preliminary support for prediction
(3c) of the Aspect Hypothesis although a longitudinal study incorporating beginning level
learners is necessary before drawing any definitive conclusions. What about prediction
(3d) of the Aspect Hypothesis, that progressive marking should not be overextended to
statives? Observe the data presented in Table 6.
Table 6: Percentage of present progressive with stative verbs
Participant Group
Here, we have preliminary findings that at earlier levels learners may incorrectly
overextend progressive marking to stative verbs but, once proficiency in the target
language increases, they pattern similar to native speakers.
Overall these findings suggest that learners, even at the intermediary stages, are
guided by the inherent lexical aspect of the verb and contextual cues of predicates, much
like native speakers. At the same time some of the data suggest L1 transfer in overreliance on the progressive form, at least with statives. Although this may be true there
does not appear to be as much overuse of the present progressive as claimed by
grammarians such as Butt and Benjamin (2000), given that the statistic analysis did not
include participant group as significant for selection of the analytic form. This could in
part be interpreted as evidence that the learners at this level already possessed a
proficiency level which had moved past such transfer. Again, this will need to be
specifically addressed in a future study.
4. Conclusions and areas of future research
Although the results from this study are preliminary in nature they point toward a
number of suggestions and fruitful areas for future investigation. One of the major
findings of the study is that more advanced learners behave more similarly to native
speakers in accepting both forms, the synthetic and the analytic, which unlike in English
are both capable of expressing present progressive aspect in Spanish. Equally as
important is the finding that learners are sensitive to lexical aspect and contextual cues
much like native speakers, even at the intermediate levels. A further goal of the study
was to test the claims of the Aspect Hypothesis and the applicability of this framework
for the investigation of the Spanish present progressive. Although future research is
necessary, the results presented in the current study seem to confirm many of the results
of previous authors employing the Aspect Hypothesis for a diverse range of languages.
Finally, the study has served to illustrate the importance of employing a native speaker
baseline by which to compare learner performance with a structure, when the
phenomenon under investigation is variable in the target language (Geeslin, forthcoming
At the same time it was noted that future investigation observing a range of learners
from the beginning stages of acquisition is necessary in order to get a fuller picture of
how present progressive aspect develops over time. In addition future study should
compare these results with those obtained from the oral data of a similar group of
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Appendix A
Instrucciones: Marque con una X una de las tres opciones que siguen a cada par de
oraciones para señalar qué diría usted en las siguientes situaciones.
Instructions: Mark with an X one of the three options that follow each sentence in order
to signal what you would say in the following situations. 9
1. Juan le cuenta a su amigo sobre su rutina diaria. Él le dice:
Juan tells his friend about his daily routine. He says to him:
A. “Estoy corriendo en el parque todos los días después del trabajo.”
“I am running in the park every day after work.”
B. “Corro en el parque todos los días después del trabajo.”
“I run in the park every day after work.”
___ Prefiero A.
___ I prefer A.
___ Prefiero B.
___ I prefer B.
___ Ambos.
____ Both.
2. Diana quiere saber cuándo saldrá la próxima película de Batman. Ella le pregunta a
su novio, el cual debe saber porque es fanático de Batman. El novio le dice:
Diane wants to know when the next Batman movie will be out. She asks her boyfriend,
who should know because he is a fanatic of Batman. The boyfriend says to her:
A. “Sale el próximo mes.”
“It comes out next month.”
B. “Está saliendo el próximo mes.”
“It is coming out next month.”
The instrument is provided here with English gloss for the reader only. This English text was not present
for any of the participants.
3. Diego le pregunta a Niki si su hermano Ernesto va a jugar basquetbol para la escuela.
Niki responde:
Diego asks Niki if her brother Ernesto is going to play basketball for the school. Niki
A. “Es que, Víctor cree que es demasiado bajo para poder jugar basquetbol.”
“It’s that, Victor believes that he is too short to play basketball.”
B. “Es que, Víctor está creyendo que es demasiado bajo para poder jugar basquetbol.”
“It’s that, Victor is believing that he is too short to play basketball.”
4. Tatiana le da instrucciones a la mucama para la semana que viene porque necesita irse
de viaje. Ella le dice a la mucama:
Tatiana gives instructions to the housekeeper for the following week because she
needs to go on a trip. She says to the maid:
A. “El bebé necesita tomar una siesta todos los días al mediodía.”
“The baby needs to take a nap everyday at midday.”
B. “El bebé está necesitando tomar una siesta todos los días al mediodía.”
“The baby is needing to take a nap everyday at midday.”
5. Jorge le pregunta a su amigo sobre los pasatiempos de su padre. El responde:
George asks his friend about the hobbies of his father. He responds:
A. “Entre muchas otras cosas, él juega futbol.”
“Among many other things, he plays football.”
B. “Entre muchas otras cosas, él está jugando futbol.”
“Among many other things, he is playing football.”
6. Miguel y Antonio están ansiosos por el comienzo del partido. Miguel ve que los
jugadores empiezan a entrar en la cancha. Él le dice a Antonio:
Miguel and Antonio are anxious for the start of the game. Miguel sees the players
start to enter the stadium. He says to Antonio:
A. “Está empezando el partido ahora.”
“Is starting the game now”.
B. “Empieza el partido ahora.”
“Starts the game now”.
7. Juan le pregunta a Víctor dónde se encuentra su hermano en este momento. Víctor le
Juan asks Victor where his brother is at this momento. Victor responds:
A. “Camina en el parque ahora.”
“He walks in the park now”.
B. “Está caminando en el parque ahora.”
“He is walking in the park right now.”
8. La doctora le pregunta a Emilia sobre sus hábitos de comer. Emilia dice:
The doctor asks Emilia about her eating habits. Emilia says:
A. “Estoy comiendo dos manzanas todos los días.”
“I am eating dos apples everyday”.
B. “Como dos manzanas todos los días.”
“I eat dos apples everyday”.
9. Tomás y Lucila están en el supermercado. Tomas escucha el grito del bebé y
Thomas and Lucile are in the supermarket. Thomas hears the scream of the baby and
A. “¿Qué quiere el bebé ahora?”
“What does the baby want now?”
B. “¿Que está queriendo el bebé ahora?”
“What is the baby wanting now?”
10. Susana le lee un cuento a su hija. Se escucha lo siguiente:
Susana reads a story to her child. The following is Heard:
A. “La princesa se despierta después de dormir por mucho tiempo.”
“ the Princess wakes up after sleeping for a long time.”
B. “La princesa se está despertando después de dormir por mucho tiempo.”
“ the Princess is waking up after sleeping for a long time.”
11. El jefe de Héctor lo regaña después de llegar tarde a la oficina. Su jefe le dice:
Hector’s boss yells at him after arriving late at the office. His boss says to him:
A. “¿Qué te pasa? estás llegando tarde a la oficina todos los días.”
“What’s going on with you? You are arriving late at the office every day.”
B. “¿Qué te pasa? llegas tarde a la oficina todos los días.”
“What’s going on with you? You arrive late at the office every day.”
12. La cena casi está lista en la casa de los Chávez. La madre le pregunta a su hija donde
está su hermano en este momento. Ella le responde:
Dinner is almost ready at the Chavez house. Mom asks her daughter where her
brother is at this time. She responds:
A. “Como se muere de hambre, julio está comiendo unas galletas para aguantar hasta la
“Given he is dying of hunger he is eating some crackers to hold off until dinner”.
B. “Como se muere de hambre, julio come unas galletas para aguantar hasta la cena”.
“Given he is dying of hunger he eats some crackers to hold off until dinner”.