Language and Education Network - Research Seminar - Hildegunn Dirdal (University of Oslo) Diversification and L1 influence in the use of clause types: A case study of complexity development.

A Graduate School of Education research event
Date18 October 2021
Time17:00 to 18:30

Hildegunn Dirdal (University of Oslo)

Diversification and L1 influence in the use of clause types: A case study of complexity development


The present study focuses on the development in the use of different types of subordinate clauses by L2 learners of English, answering the call for descriptions of complexity development that take into account specific grammatical structures instead of using global measures of length or subordination (Norris and Ortega 2009, Lambert and Kormos 2014, Biber et al. 2016, Biber et al. 2020) and that add measures of diversification (De Clercq and Housen 2017). The study also investigates L1 influence, a factor that is seldom studied systematically in complexity research, even though there is evidence that it plays a role (e.g. Lu and Ai 2015, Ehret and Szmrecsanyi 2019). 


The data come from non-narrative texts written by five Norwegian learners of English over the three years of lower secondary and first year of upper secondary school. For the investigation of L1 influence, these data were compared with Norwegian data from three of the same students and with L1 English data from the Growth in Grammar Corpus (Durrant and Brenchley 2018). 


The study confirms the importance of distinguishing between different types of clauses in the description of complexity development. Despite there being very small changes in overall amount of subordination over the four years, different clause types had different developmental trajectories, and there was an increase in diversity. The Norwegian learners relied on a smaller number of clause types at the start of the period. Over time, they added new clause types and also extended the use of specific formal types to more syntactic functions. While several clauses that were dominant at the start showed an overall decline in use, the less frequent clauses showed an increase in use, leading to a relatively more balanced distribution between clause types towards the end of the period. 


With respect to adnominal clauses, the L2 learners did not lag as much behind the L1 writers as they did in the adverbial and nominal domains. The much higher use of finite relative clauses in their L1 Norwegian may have played a facilitative role. Further, L1 influence was evident in the infrequent use of ing-clauses, a clause type for which there is no clear equivalent in Norwegian. 

Biber, Douglas, Gray, Bethany & Staples, Shelley. 2016. Predicting patterns of grammatical complexity across language exam task types and proficiency levels. Applied Linguistics 37(5): 639–668.

Biber, Douglas, Gray Bethany, Staples, Shelley & Egbert, Jesse. 2020. Investigating grammatical complexity in L2 English writing research: Linguistic description versus predictive measurement. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 46.

Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan & Finegan, Edward. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman.

De Clercq, Bastien & Housen, Alex. 2017. A cross-linguistic perspective on syntactic complexity in L2 development: Syntactic elaboration and diversity. The Modern Language Journal 101(2): 315–334.

Durrant, Philip & Brenchley, Mark. 2018. Growth in Grammar Corpus. Available from:

Ehret, Katharina & Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. 2019. Compressing learner language: An information-theoretic measure of complexity in SLA production data. Second Language Research 35(1): 23–45.

Lambert, Craig & Kormos, Judit. 2014. Complexity, accuracy, and fluency in task-based L2 research: Toward more developmentally based measures of second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 35(5): 607–614.

Lu, Xiaofei & Ai, Haiyang. 2015. Syntactic complexity in college-level English writing: Differences among writers with diverse L1 backgrounds. Journal of Second Language Writing 29: 16–27.

Norris, John M. & Ortega, Lourdes. 2009. Towards an organic approach to investigating CAF in instructed SLA: The case of complexity. Applied Linguistics 30(4): 555–578.



ProviderGraduate School of Education
Intended audienceAcademic staff and students
Registration informationContact the event organiser for the meeting link
OrganizerPhil Durrant

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