Degree Date



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




The dissertation outlines a framework for understanding variation in ultimate attainment and syntactic structure in second language acquisition by positing a distinction between competence-based and generalized learning processes. Within this framework, competence-based learning is theorized to employ inductive learning processes to acquire a basic set of skills designed to solve an evolutionarily static set of problems, while generalized learning is theorized to employ higher-order analytical processes to solve evolutionarily novel problems.

A progression in which the individual moves from competence-based to generalized learning strategies is presented as consistent with many of the observable phenomena of both first and second language acquisition, such as the apparent existence of maturational constraints on the language learner’s ability to inductively acquire grammar at or around adolescence. Maturational constraints on language acquisition are thus explained in terms of the learner’s natural reallocation of mental resources from primarily inductive learning processes in childhood to more analytical learning processes in adulthood. This developmental shift from inductive to analytical learning is characterized as evolutionarily advantageous, as it would allow the child the ability to efficiently acquire a basic set of skills and the adult the ability to solve an ever-changing set of problems.

The dissertation uses the framework outlined above to analyze post-adolescence second language learning as an example of generalized as opposed to competence-based learning. Special focus is given to the role that explicit grammar instruction and declarative grammatical knowledge play in the initial stages of second language acquisition. To this end, an experiment was conducted to contrast the effect of explicit and implicit learning strategies on the acquisition of Russian verbal morphology among a population of 53 college-aged language learners. Results from the experiment challenge the notion that post-adolescent L2 learners rely primarily on implicit learning to induce grammatical structure. In contrast to theories of implicit second language acquisition, data produced by the dissertation’s experiment suggest a strong relationship between explicit grammar learning, declarative grammatical knowledge and the acquisition of L2 verbal morphology.


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