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The acquisition of relative clauses by Spanish-Basque learners of L3 English: does dominance play a role?

  • Jon Ramos Feijoo EMAIL logo and María del Pilar García Mayo


Several studies in the area of third language acquisition (L3A) have considered various factors influencing this process, but the effect of language dominance has not been thoroughly examined. The main goal of this study is to investigate whether the acquisition of relative clauses (RCs) in L3 English is influenced by language internal factors, such as the syntactic features of the target language, or by external factors in the form of cross-linguistic influence (CLI). A total of 90 participants (40 Spanish-dominant, 40 Basque-dominant, 10 L1 Spanish-L2 English) and 10 native speakers of English completed a production and a comprehension task. Findings show that the L3 learners’ production of RCs seems to be driven by language internal factors, whereas their comprehension appears to be influenced by their previously acquired languages, mainly by Spanish. It is concluded that neither language dominance nor other traditionally considered factors play a determinant role in the acquisition of RCs in L3 English by these participants.

Corresponding author: Jon Ramos Feijoo, Departamento de Filología Inglesa y Alemana y de Traducción e Interpretación, Universidad del País Vasco (UPV-EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, Spain, E-mail:


We would like to thank Lauaxeta Ikastola as well as Colegio Nuestra Señora del Carmen, in Bizkaia (Basque Country), for giving us the opportunity to collect the data and carry out the experiment in their classrooms. We are also very grateful to all those people from the control and native speaker groups who selflessly agreed to participate. Without their help this study could have never been accomplished.

Special mention to Professor Vicente Núñez Antón for his help and guidance with the statistical analyses.

Appendix A: English relative clause types (adapted from Doughty 1991)

Position of the antecedent in the matrix clause Position of the antecedent of the RC before movement RC type Example
Subject SU (Subject) SS The people who live in Philadelphia are busy
DO (Direct object) SO The people who we know live in Philadelphia
IO (Indirect object) SIO The people who I gave the tickets to live in Philadelphia
OPREP (Object of Preposition) SOPrep The people who(m) you talked with live in Philadelphia
GEN (Genitive) SGen The people whose name is Taylor live in Philadelphia
OCOMP (Object of Comparison) SOComp The only person who I am taller than lives in Philadelphia
Object SU (Subject) OS I know some people who live in Philadelphia
DO (Direct object) OO I know the people who you know
IO (Indirect object) OIO You saw the people who I gave the tickets to
OPREP (Object of Preposition) OOPrep I know the people who you talked with
GEN (Genitive) OGen I know the people whose name is Taylor
OCOMP (Object of Comparison) OOComp I know the only person who you are taller than

Appendix B: Means and standard deviations of the participants’ scores in the OPT and the BLP test

OPT (20–39 for the B1 level) BLP test (150–0 Spanish-dominant/from 0 to −150 Basque-dominant)
Mean Standard deviation Mean Standard deviation
Spanish-Dominant 29.65 5.03 95.61 32.98
Basque-Dominant 32.37 5.69 −24.96 29.48
Both 31.02 5.51 35.32 68.16

Appendix C: Sentence-combination task (some sample items)

  1. Sicily is an island. It has many beautiful beaches. (which)

    • Sicily is an island which has many beautiful beaches.

  2. I know the boy. Ann and Jane are criticizing him. (that)

  3. Tom was cutting the grass. Alice was cooking dinner. (while)

  4. I will buy a pair of shoes. I will buy a fur coat. (and)

  5. The girl is from Turkey. She gets excellent marks in English. (who)

Appendix D: Picture-selection task (some sample items)

  1. The girl that is caressing the mother.

  2. The girl is pushing the grandmother.

  3. The elephant that the lion is wetting.


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Received: 2021-03-08
Accepted: 2021-10-30
Published Online: 2021-11-22

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