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Home / Regular Issue / JSSH Vol. 31 (3) Sep. 2023 / JSSH-8722-2022


Overpassivisation in L2 Acquisition: An Examination of L1 Malay ESL Tertiary Students’ Passivisation of Intransitive Verbs in English

Mahanum Mahdun, Mei Yuit Chan, Ngee Thai Yap, Bee Eng Wong and Zalina Mohd Kasim

Pertanika Journal of Social Science and Humanities, Volume 31, Issue 3, September 2023


Keywords: English passive, interlanguage development, intransitive verbs, Malay ESL learners, overpassivisation errors, second language acquisition

Published on: 22 September 2023

Overpassivisation, a phenomenon in which passive morphology is applied to intransitive verbs, is a common feature in the interlanguage of L2 English learners. This study examines overpassivisation among L1 Malay ESL tertiary students concerning the type of intransitive verb and English proficiency level. A total of 499 L1 Malay ESL students in higher educational institutions in Malaysia completed a grammaticality judgment test involving items with unaccusative and unergative verbs. The students have completed at least 10 years of formal English instruction in school and have considerably more exposure to English than ESL learners in a foreign language setting. As predicted, the participants overgeneralised passive morphology to the intransitive verbs, and more so with unaccusative than unergative verbs. Further, students’ competence in rejecting overpassivised forms decreased with learners’ increasing proficiency in English. The findings show that while overpassivisation is committed by the L1 Malay ESL students, unaccusative verbs contribute more to overpassivisation than unergative verbs. It indicates learners’ processing of the different underlying structures of the two classes of verbs. Also, the passive rule is progressively acquired as a reduction of overpassivisation is observed for both verb types with increasing English proficiency. L1 Malay ESL tertiary students in Malaysia at lower English proficiency levels have yet to work out intransitive structures, particularly those involving unaccusative verbs. The findings suggest that receiving L2 input in a high-exposure environment does not necessarily allow learners to bypass the developmental stages in acquiring the passive rule.

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