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English Restrictive Relative Clauses in Second Language Acquisition

Restrictive relative clauses in the English language use pronouns such as who, whom,
that, which, etc. These pronouns refer to nouns, making them more specified and designate with
detailed information as modifiers. They give people a means to encode complex adjectival
modifiers that are easier to process than complex attributive structures and that are less wordy
than two independent clauses. (Marianne & Diane, 1998)
Most ESL/EFL learners are confused by the use of different types of relative clauses and
the various choices of pronouns. However, it is very important for ESL/EFL instructors to
understand and teach these clauses properly to the students due to their complexity and the high
frequency that relative clauses are occurred in discourse and writing. Mastering relative clauses
help listeners and/or readers to identify or restrict the speakers and/or writers utterances as well
as for speakers and/or writers to give specific or crucial information. Thus, I will talk about the
knowledge that an ESL/EFL teacher must know about to teach relative clauses to students and
students acquisition in this research paper.
Definition and the Basic Types of Restrictive Relative Clauses
In the English language, if a sentence is embedded in another sentence to modify a noun
phrase, it is called relativization and the sentence that is being embedded is the relative clause.
That is to say, the relative clause gives additional or designated information to help people
differentiate the subject or object in the main clause from the other people or things. Also,
relative clause has restrictive and non-restrictive function according to the information it
conveys. The difference between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses is that the
restrictive relative clause conveys specific information that help identifying a certain person or
thing, while the non-restrictive relative clause only provides additional detail about the noun
phrase that it modifies. For example, a restrictive clause modifies a noun phrase in this way: The
girl who is standing next to the tree is my sister. A non-restrictive clause modifies a noun phrase

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in this way: Natalia, who is standing next to the tree, is my sister. Compare these two sentences,
we can tell that the non-restrictive clause modifies a noun that already gave an identification of
the subject, which means this type of relative clause usually just gives additional information
rather than identification.
Although there are at least 20 different types of relative clauses, most of the linguists and
psycholinguists are focused on the four basic types of restrictive relative clauses (Marianne &
Diane, 1998):

Subject of the embedded sentence is identical to the subject of the main clause;
e.g.: The person who cooked dinner for us is my mom.


Subject of the embedded sentence is identical to the object of the main clause;
e.g.: I met the girl who made the dinner for us.


Object of the embedded sentence is identical to the subject of the main clause;
e.g.: The girl whom you met is my sister.


Object of the embedded sentence is identical to the object of the main clause;
e.g.: I saw the man whom got hit last week.

The Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy Order of ESL/EFL Learners Acquisition

The most important English relative clause acquisition theory was conducted by Keenan
and Comrie (1977), it is the Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy (NPAH) on the data basis from
fifty languages. They claim that the relativizability of certain positions is dependent on universal
dependencies. The accessibility in simplex main clauses appears to be SU (subject) > DO (direct
object) > IO (indirect object) > OBL (major oblique case NP) > GEN (genitive) > OCOMP
(object of comparison). In terms of NPAH, they also gave the Hierarchy Constraints (HCs): 1) A
language must be able to relativize subjects. 2) Any RC-forming strategy must apply to a
continuous segment of the NPAH. 3) Strategies that apply at one point of the NPAH may in
principle cease to apply at any lower point. An ESL/EFL instructor should be highly familiar
with this NPAH theory so that they are able to identify the students errors and better arrange the
teaching approaches.

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This theory aroused large amount of researchers attention, it presented the universal
acquisition order of the relative clause. This implicational universal accessibility sequence claims
that if a language has any type of the above six ones of the NPAH, it will also have any relative
clause type higher than the hierarchy, or to the left of that type (Gass & Selinker, 2001). It also
claims that the position of the clause type which is on the higher hierarchy or the left part in the
hierarchy means it is less marked and easier for the learners to understand and accept. That is to
say, if the head noun functions as the subject in the relative clause, it will be the easiest type for
the learners to comprehend and has the most chances to be produced, but the OCOMP is
regarded as the most difficult type to acquire.
According to NPAH, Pavesi (1986) investigated the acquisition order of English relative
clauses between two groups of learners, the formal one and the informal one. The formal one
received the systematic relative clause instructions in accordance with NPAH, whilst the
informal group just picked up and exposed to the relative clauses randomly in their daily lives.
Then, Pavesi found learners in formal group could produce more difficult or lower relative clause
types in NPAH and with higher accuracy when they had acquired those less difficult or higher
relative clauses. Hence, it was concluded that, following the NPAH would enhance the
acquisition of those more difficult or lower relative clauses in NPAH. Furthermore, Yip and
Matthews (1991) also suggested that during the process of relative clause acquisition, through
examining the relative clause sentences produced by advanced Chinese and English learners, the
second language learners would not acquire the lower or more marked relative clause types
unless they mastered the less marked or higher relative clause types at first as NPAH presented.
Literature Review
Schachter (1974) analyzed the errors that Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and Persian
ESL/EFL learners made during the learning process. She found out that the frequency of using
relative clauses among the Chinese and Japanese learners is significantly lower than the Persian
and Arabic learners due to the avoidance of making mistakes in right branching languages.
However, although the East Asian learners tend to use less relative clauses, they are still mostly
able to use them in an accurate manner.
Gass (1982) found that ESL/EFL learners who were only taught on the object of
preposition relative clause were better at mastering this grammatical structure on higher

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hierarchy than the control group who were taught according to the standard textbook content.
Eckman (1988) also pointed out that ESL/EFL learners are able to deduce from higher hierarchy
to lower hierarchy when studying relative clauses.
Kuno (1974) pointed out that OS and OO relative clauses tend to be easier for learners to
retain than the SS and SO types because the embedded sentences are more complex to process.
In addition, Wong (1991) did a research by collecting 170 English compositions of four Form 5
classes in a Hong Kong secondary school and found out there was an acquisition sequence of
relative clauses by the group of Hong Kong ESL learners as OS > OO > SS > SO. He established
that a simple frequency count of attempts to use a certain type of relative clause implied that this
type was more easily accessible than other types not chosen for use as frequently. Then, he made
pre- and post-error-frequency counts of students production of six types of relative clauses and
found out that both the pre- and post-error-analysis data lent strong support to Kunos theory.
(Abdolmanafi & Rahmani, 2012)
ESL/EFL Learners Relative Clause Acquisition
The acquisition of relative clauses in the English language is one of the most important
areas that has been studied extensively by a number of researchers. Relative clauses have
received such great attention because of their importance to language acquisition and teaching
process, their unique syntactic properties, their universality in languages of the world and their
high frequency and usefulness in everyday use. Through the acquisition of relative clauses,
researchers can discover useful insights in understanding the process of second language
acquisition. It can provide a rich source of the potential facilitative role of instructional
intervention, and the role of language transfer concerned with them. As for ESL/EFL instructors,
if they understand the grammatical rules of relative clauses and the differences of relative clauses
between the native language and target language, and have a clear idea about the orders that
students follow and the errors students often make, they can identify the learning stages and
analyze the errors efficiently and adapt teaching methods accordingly.
In 1991, Doughty conducted an investigation on relative clause acquisition by testing
ESL/EFL learners whose native languages were Italian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, etc.
The general research questions addressed in this study were the differences that the language
instruction made, such as whether different types of instructional procedures differently affected

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second language acquisition, and how second language acquisition theory and previous findings
could be incorporated a control group and the use of a pre- and post-test. Subjects were randomly
assigned to one of the three groups: one control group and two experimental groups. The control
group was exposed to relative clauses but did not received instruction in relativization, whilst the
experimental groups, in addition to exposure, were provided with an instructional treatment
aimed at improving their ability to relativize in English. Improvement in relativization ability
from pretest to post test was compared among the control group and experimental groups. To
ensure that a full range of relativization was assessed, subjects were required to complete both
written and oral tasks. The written measure included grammaticality judgment task and sentence
combination task. The oral measurement was audio-recorded and transcribed. This research
found that a strong, positive effect of instruction was demonstrated for both experimental groups.
The control group also experienced gain in relativization ability; however, this increase was
significantly smaller than the gains observed for either of two experimental groups.
One of the influential study on relative clause acquisition was conducted by HansanStrain (1989). They argued that, from the perspective of a multi-competence model of
interlanguage, different methods of data collection, including grammatical judgments, picture
elicitations, essays, and sentence combination tasks, could be seen as assessing separate
interlanguage competencies, each by itself providing an incomplete picture of the language that
had been learned. They also attempted to address the incomplete picture by eliciting relative
clauses of learners from China, Japan, Korea, Samoa, etc. through the use of different
instruments employed to the same subjects. This gives an integrated description of the
interlanguage of ESL/EFL learners learning process of relative clauses.
The other recent research done by Izumi (2003) aimed to see to what extent the
predictions of different hypotheses of relative clause acquisition supported by the results of
different elicitation tasks. The tasks tested adult ESL/EFL learners whose native languages were
Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, Tai, etc. These learners knowledge was
examined by three measurements: sentence combination, interpretation, and grammaticality
judgment to assess their productive ability, comprehension ability and intuitional knowledge
separately. Analysis of the data found mixed supported for the Noun Phrase Accessibility
Hierarchy. (Keenan & Comrie, 1977) The Izumi study is one of the most important studies

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investigating ESL/EFL learners knowledge of the English language relativization in the recent
second language acquisition research. He used multiple methods to test learners interlanguage of
the target structure. Moreover, his study gave both methodological and theoretical insights for
future research on the acquisition of relative clauses.
The Main Problems ESL/EFL Students Have
The most common problem for ESL/EFL learners is to understand the relative clauses.
The long and complex structure caused difficulty for students to analyze and understand the
meaning of the embedded sentences. Students will usually use wrong relative pronouns or
adverbs because there are many different types of relative clauses. Therefore, this complexity
also lead to the fact that students tend to avoid using relative clauses to avert making errors.
Another mistake that usually occur is students tend to keep redundant pronouns when combining
two sentences together. Moreover, absence of the head noun or relative pronoun is also a
common error that students will make.
I think the reasons for this phenomenon are: 1) The influence of students native
language(s). Take Chinese as a comparison. Although both Chinese and English are SVO
structure, but the English language is a right branching language, hence its relative clause should
be after the head noun. Chinese, on the other hand, is a left branching language, therefore its
relative clause is always followed by the modified noun. When the learners have not got used to
using the target language and if there are corresponding structures between the native language
and the target language, students usually tend to rely on the readily available native language for
help. 2) Memory capacity. According to Keenan and Comries Noun Phrase Accessibility
Hierarchy (1977), the SU type relative clause is the easiest to access and it is also the type that
has smaller gap between the information it conveys. Students are more likely to use this structure
than OCOMP because if the head noun is further from the end of the relative clause, it means the
more information students need to memorize in a short period of time, which can easily cause
them to become confounded. 3) As mentioned above, the complexity of relative clauses also
contribute to the errors. The complicated linguistic system could pose a lot of difficulties for the
ESL/EFL learners, such as incomplete mastery or incorrect understanding of the grammatical

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Through the research conduction of the studies on the ESL/EFL learners with different
language proficiency along with the theories of Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy, error
analysis, etc., my idea is that an ESL/EFL instructor should be familiar with the following
theories to organize his or her teaching methods and teach relative clauses to the students more
efficiently: 1) From the acquisition difficulty order NPAH, we can get to know the development
route of mastery on each type of relative clauses for ESL/EFL learners. The similarity between
the native language and target language could ease the process of acquisition. 2) The errors
mostly appear among the beginning level ESL/EFL learners. The advanced learners make less
mistakes. Compared with other factors, their native language interference is the main responsible
reason. 3) The process of relative clause acquisition is also influenced by other factors including
the transfer of the native language (cross-linguistic), incomplete knowledge of complex system
in the target language (intralingual), language universal features and learners psychological
perception. With large amount of practice and reinforcement, and the improvement of the
language proficiency, the negative influences will be overcome by the learners.
Hence, I also want to suggest that during the teaching process, an ESL/EFL instructor
should pay attention to make improvements in these linguistic and pedagogical aspects: 1)
According to the NPAH, instructors should make appropriate teaching plans and choose proper
materials for the learners with different language proficiency. For example, lower hierarchy
relative clauses such as SU and DO can be taught at first for the basic level learners. IO and
OCOMP, on the other hand, should be taught for the advanced learners due to its complexity may
beyond their acceptability. 2) Instructors should pay more attention and focus more energy to
those predicted difficult parts for the learners that might cause weak points during the relative
clause acquisition process such as avoidance. Instructors should also try to provide various types
of tasks to enlarge both the input and output frequency of relative clauses. 3) The differences and
similarity of relative clauses between students native languages and target language should also
be demonstrated to the learners in order to make them be aware of the avoidance of the negative
transfer and the availability of positive transfer from their native language. Furthermore,
instructor should help the learners reconstruct the universal grammar to get used to the complex
relative clause pattern. 4) The design of the content of textbooks should be in accordance with

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the language proficiency and the NPAH theory in order to make the teaching process more
acceptable, effective and systematic. 5) Instructors should motivate students to realize the
complexity and importance of relative clauses and help them build up the confidence to get full
mastery of relative clauses.

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Eckman, F., Bell, R., Nelson, D. (1988). On the generalization of relative clause instruction in
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Pavesi, M. (1986). Markedness, discoursal modes, and relative clause formation in a formal and
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