turkishenglish.com - Comparison of relative clauses in ESL students



            This study was prompted by my experience teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).  I noticed that several of my students had difficulty with certain parts of English grammar, particularly the relative clause.  Furthermore, I noticed that not all of my students had an equal amount of difficulty with the construction.  It seemed to be most difficult for my Korean and Chinese students.  These students often produced relative clauses that functioned in a very non-native fashion.  It was not the syntax of the relative clause that normally presented them with the greatest difficulty, but rather how to use the relative clause in producing a text.  Examples (1-2) are both typical functional mistakes.  These were produced by Chinese students.


            (1)  However, a package of cards were heavy that made Seon-Mi exhausted after work.

            (2)  We had experienced the similar job which we got after leaving from



            When I examined the literature on the topic, I found that I was not the first to notice that these students had difficulty with this particular grammatical construction.  In 1974, Schacter compared the production of relative clauses by Chinese and Japanese students with that of Arabic, Persian, and American students, and found that Chinese and Japanese students produced fewer relative clauses than the other groups.  Relative clauses in Chinese and Japanese are prenominal or Left Branching, as in (3), which is an example from Korean (Hwang 1990:376).  In Arabic, Persian, and English, RCs are postnominal or Right Branching, as in (4).

            (3)  [RC] NP                  mok-eso             ppänä-n]          kot

                                                      throat-from     pull.out-pM       thing

                                                “the object that (he) pulled out of the throat”


            (4)  NP  [RC]               The object [that he pulled out of his throat]


            Schacter argued that the prenominal position of relative clauses in Chinese and Japanese made the production of postnominal relative clauses in English more difficult leading the students to consciously avoid the structure.  Though she never makes her reasoning explicit, one is left with the impression after reading her work that she believes the avoidance is a problem of syntactic processing.

            Persian and Arabic students already have postnominal relative clauses in their native languages.  Chinese and Japanese students have prenominal relative clauses in their native languages and must learn to switch relative clauses to a postnominal position in the process of learning English.  (Schacter 1974:359) Little study has been done to confirm or disprove this explanation, i.e., to try and pinpoint exactly what the source of difficulty is for these students.  

Purpose and Underlying Assumptions of the Present Study

            The purpose of this thesis is to provide needed description of exactly how L2 learners are using relative clauses in natural discourse.  It is hoped that this type of data will shed light on why this structure is such an impediment to students like the Chinese and Japanese, and either confirm Schacter’s hypothesis or point research in promising new directions.  The project will analyze and compare the English compositions of learners from two different languages:  Korean and Spanish.  The first language has prenominal relative clauses; the second has postnominal ones.  

            It is the underlying assumption of this thesis, well-founded in theory and practice, that the most appropriate arena for the study of language, whether first or second, is discourse.  Some recent studies and the growing number of books which claim to integrate language teaching with discourse principles support this assumption (e.g., Hatch 1992, McCarthy 1991, and Larsen-Freeman 1980).  Grimes (1975) suggested that the study of discourse might be of more than theoretical interest and hoped that its fruit would be useful to language teachers.  Givon (1979) even goes so far as to say that the only reason that the functional/discoursal aspect of language has not been at the center of linguist's attention is the psuedo-scientific rise of Generative grammar and its theoretical competitors.  Inasmuch as this is true, I hope that the present study will aid in correcting the misplaced emphasis.  

Overview of Thesis

            Chapter 2 is a review of the literature related to relative clauses with respect to information flow and discourse function, second language acquisition, and crosslinguistic similarities and differences.  Chapter 3 is a specific problem statement outlining the goals and limitations of the study in light of previous research.  Chapter 4 deals with the database and the analytical procedures used in the investigation.  Chapter 5 reports the results of the study with discussion.  Chapter 6 is a summary of what was found and suggests areas for further research.  

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