The investigation of the acquisition of temporal systems by second language (L2 ) learners has created an impressive body of work that informs our understanding of their developing competence because they involve all aspects of a language – pragmatic, lexical, syntactic, morphological (e. g., Ayoun & Salaberry2005; Salaberry2008; Salaberry & Comajoan, 2013). However, most empirical studies have focused on past temporal reference, neglecting future temporal reference with a few exceptions (e.g., Benati, 2001) aside from ESL learners (Bardovi-Harlig 2004 a, 2004 b). The future is interesting because it differs from the past and the present in encompassing both temporality and modality. Intentionality is its most common reading, but it can also express possibility, probability, desire and volition (Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca 1994). French and English share several ways of expressing future temporality that include three morphological forms (simple future, lexical future, periphrastic future) without being necessarily equivalent. For instance, ‘will’ expresses modality whereas the simple future in French is clearly temporal.
Previous studies found that L2 learners go through three developmental stages in their acquisition of future temporality: a pragmatic stage, a lexical stage and finally a morphological stage characterized by the productive use verbal morphology. Since these stages are based on naturalistic data (Dietrich, Klein & Noyau 1995) and ESL learner data (e.g., Bardovi-Harlig 2000, 2005), it will be interesting to see if instructed foreign language learners go through the same stages as suggested by an early study (Moses 2002).
In the present cross-sectional study, L2 French learners at three proficiency levels and French native speaker controls completed a personal narrative and a cloze task. Findings were mixed in that they revealed a task effect and proficiency effects, but all learners used a variety of morphological forms (i.e., present, futurate present, periphrastic future, time adverbials) to express futurity in their personal narratives, and appear to be acquiring temporal and modal values associated with the future. These learners appear to be already too advanced to use pragmatic and lexical means to express futurity and rely instead on morphological means, the ultimate developmental stage.
As found in previous studies, the cloze test was more difficult than the narrative. As it is well-known, participants’ behaviour on experimental elicitation tasks combines primary language faculties and general cognitive properties along with individual linguistic and extra-linguistic attitudes. Higher levels of proficiency will eventually lead to a more consistent performance on more demanding elicitation tasks, although the literature illustrates how empirical findings are rarely consistent across measures. But the most important finding is that the L2 learners’ TAM system shows contrasts and systematicity suggesting that they are making appropriate distinctions.