Martha Young-Scholten

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Martha Young-Scholten is a linguist specialising in the phonology and syntax of second language acquisition (SLA). She has been a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom since September 2006. Her PhD concerned the structure of phonology in a second language.[1]

The Minimal Trees Hypothesis

Young-Scholten is most notable within linguistics and SLA for developing the Minimal Trees Hypothesis with Anne Vainikka,[2] where 'tree' is a metaphor of syntax for the branching structure showing how words of a phrase or sentence co-relate.[3] The hypothesis concerns what aspects of a language learner's first language (L1) is carried over into the grammar of their second language (L2), in addition to mechanisms of universal grammar that allow new acquisition to take place.

Whereas many researchers lean towards a 'Full Transfer' view in which all the L1 grammar transfers[4] - i.e. the initial state of the L2 is the final state of the first - Young-Scholten and Vainikka have argued that only lexical categories (e.g. the noun phrase) are drawn from the L1, and that functional categories (e.g. the inflectional phrase that represents tense) do not; rather, the learner 'grows' new ones because they start their L2 acquisition with only a 'minimal' syntactic tree.

Several competing accounts for the role of transfer and universal grammar persist in SLA; the Minimal Trees Hypothesis remains particularly controversial, and has been strongly critiqued in syntactic research on both empirical and conceptual grounds: some researchers argue that linguistic behaviour does not follow the model,[5] and others claim that it is theoretically misconceived.[6] For example, the idea that a component of language could be absent from the initial stage, so that the system selectively extracts only one part of the L1, is unacceptable to those who favour 'Full Transfer' rather than 'Partial Transfer'.[7]

Second language acquisition and applied linguistics

Young-Scholten's primary research focus involves the phonology of second language acquisition, particularly in German and English as L2s. Data collected from three adolescent native speakers learning German in Germany has formed the basis of several papers. The different paths of acquisition that the three speakers took - acquiring German pronunciation deviantly or not at all - led Young-Scholten to argue that the nature of the linguistic input they received was crucial to their performance. For example, one learner whose exposure to German came largely through orthography (writing) did not acquire pronunciations that are unrepresented in written German, despite constantly hearing them.[8]

Young-Scholten's theoretical position on second language acquisition is that learned knowledge about language (e.g. being explicitly taught rules of grammar) has no true effect on actual linguistic competence. This view aligns with Stephen Krashen's distinction between subconscious 'acquisition' and conscious 'learning', with the former being more important,[9] and the comprehension approach to foreign language instruction.[10]

Young-Scholten is also involved in applied linguistics research on exceptional language acquisition, e.g. where learning is atypical due to problems such as dyslexia or specific language impairment, and the (mainly negative) effect of orthography (written language) on the early stages of second language learning.[11]

Other work

In 2007-2008, Young-Scholten worked on a project involving local secondary school pupils and composer Andy Jackson to present research on first language acquisition of English as a musical performance. This project, Setting Language Acquisition Research to Music, led to two pieces, 'Swing Cycle' (about how infants hear language) and 'Out of the Mouths...' (which focuses on acquisition itself). The project led to a performance at The Sage Gateshead.[12]

In a contribution to the study of popular culture, Young-Scholten gave the SLA seal of approval to the depiction of naturalistic (without instruction) language acquisition in the Tom Hanks Hollywood film The Terminal (2004); Love Actually (2003) apparently does not fare so well.[13]


  1. Young-Scholten (1993).
  2. Vainikka & Young-Scholten (1994; 1996; 1998).
  3. Vainikka & Young-Scholten (2003).
  4. Unsworth, Parodi, Sorace & Young-Scholten (2005).
  5. e.g. White (1991), for French.
  6. White (2003: 68-78), for review; Schwartz & Sprouse (1994); Schwartz (1998).
  7. Schwartz & Sprouse (1996).
  8. Young-Scholten (2004a; 2004b).
  9. e.g. Young-Scholten (1999).
  10. Young-Scholten & Piske (2008).
  11. Young-Scholten (2002); Young-Scholten, Akita & Cross (1999); Young-Scholten & Archibald (2000). For earlier work on 'positive' and 'negative' input, see Young-Scholten (1994; 1995).
  12. School of English Language and Literature, University of Newcastle upon Tyne: 'Young Ears, Young Tongues concert at the Sage', 22nd July 2008, and 'Setting Language Research to Music: The Swing Cycle'. 13th November 2007.
  13. Young-Scholten (2005).

See also