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The complexity of linguistic complexity: a corpus-based study on development of phrasal complexity in written L2-Swedish


  • Karin Rasmusson

Summary, in English

The aim of this study was to establish whether or not a development of the complexity of the noun phrase, i.e. an increase in noun phrase elaboration could be observed in written L2 Swedish over time. To provide an insight to said development, three on L2 English previously tested and strongly correlating phrasal complexity measures, MLNP, MNPDep and WNPCx (Bulté 2013), were employed. A fourth measure that measure the mean length of morphemes per noun phrase (MLNPm) was added to the study to investigate if such a measure could present a different picture than mean length of words per noun phrase (MLNP). The data consisted of the written production of ten L2 learners collected within the ASU-corpus. Forty essays, i.e. four essays per learner, were analysed. The written production were all descriptive texts since these were considered to potentially contain a high degree of noun phrases. The author and an experienced rater carried out the analyses and calculations manually in Excel spreadsheets. All four measures correlated strongly, suggesting that they do measure noun phrase complexity also for L2 Swedish. No evidence that MLNPm would provide a different picture than MLNP was found. The two measures followed similar developmental pathways. T-tests performed on the first and last measurement point for all four measures provided evidence suggesting that there was a development of NP complexity over time, and the results of the t-tests were significant. For half of the learners, the development was linear, and for the other half it was mostly linear from the first to the third measurement point, with the exception of one learner who displayed more non-linear and irregular developmental pathways. A decline from the third to the fourth measurement point was detected. This decline could be due to different reasons. One being that the learners no longer had any L2 instruction at the fourth measurement point. However, since Bulté (2013) also found a decline in his study, where the learners still had instructions, this explanation does not seem to hold. That the learners resorted to other constructions, i.e. what Verspoor et al. (2008) and Spoelman and Verspoor (2010) refer to as a ‘competitive relationship’ between noun phrase complexity and sentence complexity (e.g. subordination), seems more likely, and would be interesting to further examine in a multidimensional complexity study in order to account for all aspects of the development of complexity.


Publishing year




Document type

Student publication for Master's degree (two years)


  • Languages and Literatures


  • Second language development
  • Complexity
  • Accuracy
  • and Fluency
  • Linguistic complexity
  • Syntactic complexity
  • Phrasal complexity
  • Noun phrase complexity
  • Morphological complexity


  • Anna Flyman Mattsson
  • Joost van de Weijer (Dr)