Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Research Article

The role of dynamic contrasts in the L2 acquisition of Spanish past tense morphology  *


a1 University of Southampton

a2 University of Southampton

a3 University of Greenwich

a4 University of Southampton

a5 University of Essex


This study examines the second language acquisition of Spanish past tense morphology by three groups of English speakers (beginners, intermediates and advanced). We adopt a novel methodological approach – combining oral corpus data with controlled experimental data – in order to provide new evidence on the validity of the Lexical Aspect Hypothesis (LAH) in L2 Spanish. Data elicited through one comprehension and three oral tasks with varying degrees of experimental control show that the emergence of temporal markings is determined mainly by the dynamic/non-dynamic contrast (whether a verb is a state or an event) as beginner and intermediate speakers use Preterit with event verbs but Imperfect mainly with state verbs. One crucial finding is that although advanced learners use typical Preterit–telic associations in the least controlled oral tasks, as predicted by the LAH, this pattern is often reversed in tasks designed to include non-prototypical (and infrequent) form–meaning contexts. The results of the comprehension task also show that the Preterit-event and Imperfect-state associations observed in the production data determine the interpretation that learners assign to the Preterit and the Imperfect as well. These results show that beginner and intermediate learners treat event verbs (achievements, accomplishments and activities) in Spanish as a single class that they associate with Preterit morphology. We argue that dynamicity contrasts, and not telicity, affect learners’ use of past tense forms during early stages of acquisition.

(Received October 20 2011)

(Revised May 23 2012)

(Accepted July 02 2012)

(Online publication November 20 2012)


  • Lexical Aspect Hypothesis;
  • second language acquisition;
  • Imperfect;
  • Spanish;
  • learner corpora


c1 Address for correspondence: Laura Domínguez, University of Southampton, Modern Languages, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK


*  This study has been supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) research grant RES-062–23-1075 and is part of the Spanish Learner Language Oral Corpora (SPLLOC) project. We would like to thank all the people involved in the project including fieldworkers and transcribers, and in particular schools and colleges in the UK and Spain which kindly agreed to participate in the study. We are also grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions for improvement.