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Learning to Think Backwards: Japanese Students and the Acquisition of English Relative Clauses  

Robert W. Norris

2000. In Bulletin of Fukuoka International University No. 4: 41-47


English relative clauses (RCs) present a major obstacle for Japanese learners trying to improve their communicative skills in English. Not only is the English RC structurally different from its Japanese counterpart, there is also a large number of RC types the Japanese learner must deal with. In order to prepare effective lesson plans that help Japanese learners overcome the difficulties involved in acquiring English RCs, teachers need to be aware of what the structural differences are, what tendencies Japanese learners have in acquiring the RC grammatical feature, and what options are available for teaching.

This first paper of a two-part series examines specific structural differences between English and Japanese RCs, summarizes research that has been done on Japanese learners’ acquisition and production of English RCs, and proposes that consciousness-raising (CR) and "noticing" activities provide the most effective classroom instruction for Japanese learners at the university level. An explanation of the rationale behind the use of CR activities and why they are suitable for Japanese learners is also included. A second paper that focuses on detailed teaching suggestions and lesson plans will follow.

Sources of Difficulty

The chief source of difficulty for the Japanese learner’s acquisition of English RCs may lie in the differences in the way RCs are formed. The most basic of these differences is that the RC in English is usually placed after the noun it describes, while the Japanese equivalent must be put before it.

This feature is referred to as "branching direction." English is primarily "right-branching," that is, objects are placed to the right of verbs, noun-phrases to the right of their prepositional heads, and RCs to the right of their head nouns. Japanese is a "left-branching" language and has an object-verb word order. Japanese noun phrases are put to the left of their postpositional heads, and RCs to the left of their head nouns (Rutherford, 1987: 133). In their initial exposure to English RCs, Japanese learners of English should be expected to face difficulties in having to "think backwards" in trying to understand or produce an unfamiliar grammatical construction.

Another feature involves the relative pronoun itself. The English relative pronoun has a variety of forms ("who," "which," "that," etc.), the choice of which may be constrained by gender and/or case, whereas there is no relative pronoun in Japanese. In addition, the English relative pronoun is deletable in many cases when it is clause initial, the object of a verb, or in a stranded position (Saunders, 1986).

In summing up the above differences, Saunders (1986: 175) lists these potential difficulties for Japanese learners:

1. Locating the relative clause in the appropriate position.
2. Marking the relative clause using a relative pronoun.
3. Choosing an appropriate relative pronoun.
4. Retaining the preposition.
5. Stranding the preposition of the Wh-phrase.
6. Learning when not to delete the Wh-word.

Connected to number 1 above is the diversity of RC types. Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1983: 368) list five functions of the head noun in main clauses: subject, direct object, indirect object, object of the preposition, and predicate noun. Under each of these categories, four different functions of the relativized noun in RCs are listed: subject, direct object, indirect object, and object of a preposition (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1983: 368). Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1983) also note that the possessive determiner "whose" can relativize any noun in the second listing above. This produces a total of at least 40 distinct English RC structures.

Research on Relative Clause Acquisition of Japanese Learners

Most of the research done on Japanese learners’ acquisition of RCs has focused on three areas: (1) the question of whether there is first language (L1) interference1 and, if so, how much, (2) the issue of avoidance strategies, and (3) the order of difficulty within the RC types.

Schachter (1974) found L1 transfer to manifest itself in terms of the number of RCs used in the written themes of her adult English as a Second Language (ESL) students, though not in the number of errors that were made. Schachter (1974) found that Chinese and Japanese students (whose languages are left-branching) made fewer errors in the use of RCs than Persian or Arabic learners (whose languages, like English, are right-branching) because they produced fewer clauses overall. Schachter (1974) hypothesized that it was the structural difference in branching that led Chinese and Japanese learners to avoid using RCs. On the other hand, in a study of RCs produced by adult English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students with Japanese and Spanish as L1s, Bertkau (1974) found "little evidence of systematic learner language."

Tarallo and Myhill (1983) reported differences between speakers from right-branching languages (Portuguese and German) and speakers from left-branching languages (Chinese and Japanese) in terms of their acceptance of the "unacceptable" resumptive pronouns.2 Tarallo and Myhill (1983) tentatively suggest these differences have to do with learners’ expectations and abilities to deal with structural configurations in the target L2 that follow from a match or mismatch in the branching directions of the learners’ L1 and English.

Myhill (1982) also found interference to be related to difficulties by Japanese subjects in tests of grammaticality judgments on RCs. Supporting the findings of Schachter  (1974) and Myhill (1982), Saunders’ (1989) study of Japanese adult learners’ RC development found interference to be important in relation to the learners’ sources of difficulty.

Flynn (1989), in a study of elicited restrictive RCs by adult learners at three levels of English proficiency, found significant differences in acquisition patterns between the case in which the L1 and L2 matched in head direction (Spanish speakers) and the case in which they did not (Japanese speakers). Flynn (1989: 94) reports that acquisition of these sentence structures was  

…significantly disrupted for the Japanese speakers, as they had to assign a new value to the head-direction parameter in order that it cohere with English. In contrast, acquisition was significantly facilitated for the Spanish speakers, as they did not need to assign a new value to the parameter under discussion but could rely upon the head-direction configuration established by the L1 setting in working out the grammar of the new target language, English.

Concerning the prediction of accuracy and acquisition orders of the different types of RCs, most studies refer to Keenan and Comrie’s (1977) Accessibility Hierarchy (AH), which suggests the following universal order of easiest to most difficult:

For example:
SU (Subject)
the boy that came
DO (Direct Object)
the boy that John hit
IO (Indirect Object)
the boy that he spoke to
PREP (Object of Preposition) the boy that he sat near
GEN (Genitive) the boy whose father died
COMP (Object of Comparative) the boy that he is taller than

The AH predicts that RCs formed on the subject are easiest to learn, while those on the object of a comparative are the most difficult. According to Hansen-Strain and Strain (1989), these predictions based on AH have been confirmed by various studies examining the L2 acquisition of RCs in English, but not for every detail in every case.

Two other hypotheses have been proposed that differ from the AH. Kuno (1974) proposed that since center embedding is perceptively difficult, "object embedded, subject focus" (OS) and "object embedded, object focus" (OO) types of RCs should be easier than "subject embedded, subject focus" (SS) and "subject embedded, object focus" (SO) types.3 Studies by Ioup and Kruse (1977) and Schumann (1980) give support to Kuno’s hypothesis. Sheldon (1974) proposed the Parallel Function Hypothesis. Based on L1 acquisition, this hypothesis claims that SS and OO types should be easier to acquire than SO and OS types because the RC has the same function as the head noun. The AH maintains that SS and OS types should be easier than SO and OO types.

The divergence of findings concerning RC acquisition can be explained by the broad array of different data collection procedures in the studies. These included grammatical judgements, picture elicitations, essays, imitation tasks, and sentence combining. Hansen-Strain and Strain (1989) say that  

...from the perspective of a multicompetence4 model of interlanguage,5 these  different methods of data collection could be seen as assessing separate interlanguage competencies, each by itself providing an incomplete picture of the language that had been learned.

Hansen-Strain and Strain (1989) attempted to address this "incomplete picture" by eliciting RCs of learners from Japanese and four other L1 backgrounds (Chinese, Korean, Samoan, and Tongan) through the use of seven different instruments administered to the same subjects. These included production as well as comprehension tasks, both oral and written.

The results from Hansen-Strain and Strain’s (1989) study have particular relevance for teachers searching for answers to the question of how to teach English RCs to Japanese learners. The results showed there was contextual variability in the RC performance of the Japanese learners. Their performance profile for the elicitation tasks showed lower accuracy in listening comprehension and speaking tests than on written ones. In other words, their competence in comprehending spoken sentences containing RCs and using them in spoken discourse appeared low when compared with their abilities in using the same constructions in writing.

Predictions of the AH were generally born out by this study, the one exception being the genitive (GEN) position. The Japanese and Chinese subjects’ scores were significantly higher than the subjects from other L1 backgrounds.

Hansen-Strain and Strain (1989: 231-232) explain their findings:  

 A factor in the patterning of this variation may be the limited exposure to   spoken English discourse which Japanese learners experience in the EFL learning context of Japan. These data indicate also that the kind of discourse learners experience is what they learn. In terms of a multiple competence model of variation, a competency in an oral style with minimal planning and maximal personal involvement demands for its development the requisite oral input.

The Japanese population drawn from this study comes…with a considerable  investment of time and effort in the memorization of English rules of grammar, which they as learners consider an essential part of the language   learning task….It may be the greater emphasis on grammatical form in Asian instructional settings, in this case a greater emphasis on the structure of relative clauses formed on GEN, that contributes to the Japanese high performance on them.

Saunders’ (1989) study looked at the question of individual variation and sequencing within RC structures produced by Japanese EFL students in Australia, and the validity of the interference hypothesis and the L1-L2 analogy as explanations of the source of learner difficulties. His data consisted of transcriptions of recordings of 20- to 25-minute free conversations with native speakers of English, held at approximately monthly intervals for periods of six to nine months.

Saunders’ (1989) study was consistent with the findings of Ioup and Kruse (1977) and Schumann (1980) that sentences embedded on object were preferred by Japanese learners to sentences embedded on subject, although subject focus was preferred to object focus embeddings.

Implications for Teaching

     Concerning the acquisition and production of RCs, the research cited in this paper leads us to summarize that Japanese learners generally have the following characteristics: 

 1.Tend to use avoidance strategies, which may be partially explained by L1  interference (left-branching versus the right-branching of English).
 2. Tend to be more adept at understanding and producing RCs in written form, which allows more planning and less personal involvement, than they are in spoken form.
 3. Tend to prefer using OS RCs to other RC types.

Based on these observations, Japanese learners would benefit from learning experiences that expose them to: 

 1. more practice in recognizing and producing RCs (in order to become more accustomed to the different head parameter and branching direction  of English).
 2. a focus on the spoken form (in order to give them more practice in dealing with minimal preparation and more personal involvement).
 3. more practice in the RC types they are weaker at (in order to reduce avoidance strategies).

This paper proposes that in order to help Japanese learners become better at acquiring and using RCs, the most appropriate method of instruction is one in which CR and "noticing" techniques are employed, followed by structure-oriented, meaningful production and comprehension exercises. Communicative input containing the target structures should be an ongoing process.

Consciousness-Raising and Noticing

What exactly do we mean by CR and "noticing" techniques? The term "consciousness-raising," as used by Rutherford and Sharwood Smith (1985), refers to increased learner awareness of particular linguistic features. Ellis (1990) theorizes that through formal instruction learners become aware of particular features of the L2 and form explicit representations of what they are taught. Fotos (1993: 386) summarizes: 

Once consciousness of a particular feature has been raised through formal education, learners continue to remain aware of the feature and notice it in  subsequent communicative input, events considered to be necessary prerequisites for language processing leading to the eventual acquisition of  the feature.

In line with Ellis’s (1990) theory, Smith (1981), Rutherford (1987), and McLaughlin (1987) have all proposed that a learner goes through four general language processing steps in acquiring linguistic features:  

 1. a feature in processed input is noticed, either consciously or unconsciously;
 2. an unconscious comparison is made between existing linguistic knowledge, also called interlanguage, and the input;
 3. new linguistic hypotheses are constructed on the basis of the differences between the new information and the current interlanguage; and
 4. the new hypotheses are tested through attending to input and also through learner output using the new form. (Fotos, 1993: 387)

Schmidt (1990) distinguishes between perceived information, or input, and information that is noticed by the learner, or intake. He proposes that this noticing of linguistic forms is critical to subsequent processing of the forms. For empirical data supporting his proposal, Schmidt analyzed his own acquisition of Brazilian Portuguese (Schmidt and Frota, 1986). Analysis and correlation of Schmidt’s personal diaries and taped conversations with a native speaker interlocutor indicated that just being taught a certain grammatical form was insufficient for subsequent use of the form in the taped conversations. He had to first notice the form in communicative input before he began to produce it on his own. Schmidt (1990: 141) explains: 

 I heard [certain types of Brazilian Portuguese question forms] and processed them for meaning from the beginning, but did not notice the form for five months. When I did notice the form, I began to use it.

I would like to mention here that I have found the same process at work in my own Japanese language learning experiences. Concerning the acquisition of Japanese RCs, for a long time I also heard them and processed them for meaning. When I finally noticed the "left branching" of Japanese RCs, I began trying to use the form in my own speech. More specifically, I noticed that Japanese clauses often ended with a verb-noun pattern (e.g., megane o kaketeiru hito, "glasses wearing person; kinoo yonda zasshi, "yesterday read magazine"; etc.). Before noticing this pattern, I was limited in both comprehension and production to short sentences. When I started practicing "thinking backwards," I not only began comprehending and producing longer clauses and sentences, but also saw my confidence grow tremendously. I consider my acquisition of the Japanese RC to be a major step in the advances I have made in spoken Japanese.

Continued exposure to grammatical forms is important in order to increase the odds of a learner first noticing, then acquiring them. CR activities in the classroom can play an essential role in this process. Fotos (1993: 387) summarizes:

Ellis (1990) presents an argument for formal instruction as a type of consciousness-raising activity to develop learner awareness of a grammatical feature, and Schmidt (1990) suggests that when learners then go on to notice a feature in subsequent communicative input, acquisition may occur. From this perspective, then, formal instruction appears to lead to acquisition only indirectly and after a delay. Both researchers emphasize the necessity for learners to be exposed to subsequent communicative input containing the target feature in order for noticing to take place. Lightbown (1992) finds additional empirical support  for this point in a study on the durability of instruction on L2 question forms. She notes that learners who received formal instruction on the forms maintained proficiency gains or even improved in accuracy if they had subsequent exposure to communicative language containing the forms, and were motivated to acquire them to improve their communicative skills.

Many factors must be taken into consideration in the planning of effective lessons for teaching RCs to Japanese learners. Among these factors are the differences in the branching directions of Japanese and English RCs, inherent difficulties involving the number of RC types and relative pronouns, the perceived AH for Japanese learners, Japanese learners’ tendency to use avoidance strategies, the EFL instruction Japanese learners are exposed to, and the necessity of introducing CR activities that are followed by communicative input containing the target structure.

The importance of these last two factors should be emphasized. Hansen-Strain and Strain (1989: 234-35) elaborate:  

The variability patterns in [our] study suggest that the emphasis in Japanese EFL classrooms is on planned, written styles with little personal   involvement. As teachers, we need to be aware that learning to perform in such careful styles is quite different from learning to perform in unplanned spoken ones. As Ellis (1987) comments, "Because different kinds of knowledge and different processes of language use are involved in different discourse types, it cannot be expected that the acquisition of one style will facilitate the use of another style" (p. 192). Thus a primary concern of a second language teacher is to insure a match between the interactional opportunities available to the learner and the kind of competence the teaching is designed to produce.

In the next paper of this two-part series, I will present a variety of detailed lessons based on the ideas outlined in the present paper and designed (a) to facilitate CR and noticing of English RC patterns in Japanese university students, (b) to encourage the students’ active production of RCs with minimal preparation and maximum personal involvement, and (c) to give follow-up communicative input containing the target structures.


I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Tadamitsu Kamimoto for his help in tracking down several useful reference sources, for the many discussions we've had over several years concerning Japanese students' difficulties with English relative clauses, and for his continued encouragement to pursue this research.


1. Interference in second language acquisition occurs when the patterns of the learner’s mother tongue get in the way of learning the patterns of the L2 (Ellis, 1985).

2. A resumptive pronoun, also known as a pronominal trace, is a pronoun left in the position of an extracted noun phrase, e.g., it in the movie that I saw it (Rutherford, 1987: 190)

3. Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1983: 366) describe these four basic types of RCs: (1) SS, subject of the embedded sentence is identical to the subject of the main clause, e.g., "The girl who speaks Basque is my cousin"; (2) OS, subject of the embedded sentence is identical to the object of the main clause, e.g., "I know the girl who speaks Basque"; (3) SO, object of the embedded sentence is identical to the subject of the main clause, e.g., "The man who(m) you met is my teacher"; and (4) OO, object of the embedded sentence is identical to the object of the main clause, e.g., "I  know the place that you mentioned." In addition, there are four types of OS, 12 types of OO, three types of SO, and one type of SS. For examples, see Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1983: 366-372).

4. According to Hansen-Strain and Strain (1989: 213), a multiple competence paradigm, as proposed by Ellis (1985), "holds that interlanguage [see 5 below] is composed of a series of variable systems which are domain specific. These are said to comprise a continuum of discourse types ranging from entirely unplanned to entirely planned." Hansen-Strain and Strain (1989: 213) used "a multiple competence model of discourse variability which takes into account not only degree of planning but also language modality and level of interpersonal involvement" as the theoretical framework for their study on variation in Japanese learners’ acquisition and production of English relative clauses.

5. "Interlanguage" is the term coined by Selinker (1972) to refer to the systematic knowledge of a second language which is independent of both the learner’s L1 and the target language (Ellis, 1985).


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Celce-Murcia, M. and D. Larsen-Freeman. 1983. The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher's Course. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

Ellis, R. 1985. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. 1987. "Contextual variability in second language acquisition and the relevancy of language teaching." In R. Ellis (ed.), Second Language Acquisition in Context  (pp. 179-194). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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Schachter, J. 1974. "An error in error analysis." Language Learning 24: 205-14.

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Schmidt, R. and S. Frota. 1986. "Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner of Portuguese" in R. Day (ed.): Talking to Learn: Conversations in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

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