Plural marking in the second language: Atomicity, definiteness, and transfer

Sea Hee Choi, Tania Ionin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper examines whether second language (L2)-English learners whose native languages (L1; Korean and Mandarin) lack obligatory plural marking transfer the properties of plural marking from their L1s, and whether transfer is manifested both offline (in a grammaticality judgment task) and online (in a self-paced reading task). The online task tests the predictions of the morphological congruency hypothesis (Jiang 2007), according to which L2 learners have particular difficulty automatically activating the meaning of L2 morphemes that are incongruent with their L1. Experiment 1 tests L2 learners' sensitivity to errors of-s oversuppliance with mass nouns, while Experiment 2 tests their sensitivity to errors of-s omission with count nouns. The findings show that (a) L2 learners detect errors with nonatomic mass nouns (sunlights) but not atomic ones (furnitures), both offline and online; and (b) L1-Korean L2-English learners are more successful than L1-Mandarin L2-English learners in detecting missing-s with definite plurals (these boat), while the two groups behave similarly with indefinite plurals (many boat). Given that definite plurals require plural marking in Korean but not in Mandarin, the second finding is consistent with L1-transfer. Overall, the findings show that learners are able to overcome morphological incongruency and acquire novel uses of L2 morphemes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)549-578
Number of pages30
JournalApplied Psycholinguistics
Issue number3
Early online dateJan 20 2021
StatePublished - May 2021


  • atomicity
  • count/mass distinction
  • definiteness
  • first language transfer
  • generalized classifier language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • General Psychology


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