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UIC TiL Spring 2013
The problem of impersonal/passive ‘se’:
Examining competence and processing in L2 and Heritage Spanish
Bernard Issa and Kara Morgan-Short
University of Illinois at Chicago
Morphosyntactic structures, specifically those where one surface structure serves multiple
functions, have been shown to pose particular difficulty for second language (L2) learners. One such
construction is the clitic pronoun se in Spanish; the collocate se + verb can encode an impersonal meaning
or a passive meaning (among others). Speakers must correctly process the morphological marking on the
verb, as well as the syntactic phrase following the verb to correctly interpret the meaning. Results from
previous research using grammaticality judgment tasks (GJTs) suggest that intermediate-advanced L2
learners do not display native-like competence with regard to the impersonal and passive se constructions
(Bruhn de Garavito, 1999; Montrul, 1999; Tremblay, 2006). GJTs, however, have been criticized as being
an imperfect measure of competence due to their highly explicit nature (Juffs, 2001). The current study
aims to provide a more sensitive measure of competence by employing a processing measure, namely,
self-paced reading, in addition to a GJT. Additionally, this study includes a group of Heritage speakers of
Spanish, in order to provide an exploratory examination of similarities and differences in processing
among Native speakers, Heritage speakers and L2 learners of Spanish in regard to these structures.