National Kaohsiung Normal University, Taiwan
Jia-yi C. Lin
Shu-te University, Taiwan
English psych verbs behave differently from regular action verbs and thus typically cause a learning difficulty for a learner of a second or foreign language. While an action verb normally forms both an active and a passive construction, a psych verb entails restrictions. For a psych verb of type experiencer-theme (E-T), such as fear and enjoy, only an active construction is acceptable; for a psych verb of type theme-experiencer (T-E), such as disappoint and surprise, either an active or a passive construction is possible, but thematic structures differ. According to the Thematic Hierarchy, a passive construction with an experiencer subject is easier than, and thus becomes learnt before, an active construction with a theme subject. We examined whether this complication makes L2 acquisition of a psych verb different from, and more difficult than, a regular action verb, how psych verbs in the two subcategories are acquired by groups with varied proficiencies in English, and whether results of the current research conform to theories previously claimed by linguists. The results show that action verbs are easier than, and acquired before, psych verbs, and that, between the two subcategories, E-T verbs are acquired before T-E verbs. Among the participants in the three groups with varied English proficiencies, the advanced participants — graduate students with English as their major subject — performed best on verbs of all three types; intermediate participants who were senior students in secondary school, performed better than the beginning participants, i.e. junior students in secondary school, on the action verbs but not on psych verbs. Intermediate participants represented a transitional stage when learners undergo a period of confusing both psych verbs of two subtypes and the active-passive alternation in T-E verbs. L2 acquisition of English psych verbs by advanced and beginning learners reveals that the passive construction of T-E verbs is learned earlier than the active construction, in conformity with the prediction of the Thematic Hierarchy.