I've been reading about second language acquisition, and I've come across the Representational Deficit Hypothesis (also known as the Failed Functional Features Hypothesis). What is it? And where can I read more about it?

  • Can someone create a "theory" tag? I'm planning on doing a couple of these as I study for my SLA final. Nov 26, 2016 at 3:00
  • Great to hear that at least someone is studying SLA theory! I have created the tag and a tag description, but the tag description needs to get reviewed by a moderator.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 26, 2016 at 19:35
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Thanks! I hope I can contribute a little here, there's a lot of applied SLA. Nov 26, 2016 at 19:40

1 Answer 1


The Representational Deficit Hypothesis (RDH) is part of the greater school of thought that L2s are not processed in the same manner as a native language. Specifically, the RDH states that L2 learners cannot learn new formal features that are not in their L1.

An example of a formal feature that English (largely) lacks would be case. The RDH predicts that an L1 English speaker learning a language with case (e.g. Russian) would struggle to acquire case.

Later thoughts on the RDH suggest that the difficulty is only found on "uninterpretable features," that is, features that serve only a grammatical purpose, e.g. grammatical gender agreement.

The key point of the RDH is that learners lack the syntactic representation of features not present in the L1 and are therefore unable to comprehend or produce associated morphosyntactic forms and structures accurately, although learners may compensate by using the L1 grammar to approximate them.

Further, the RDH also predicts that when under pressure, L2 speakers will default to an underspecified form for all cases. In Spanish, which has grammatical gender, this would mean defaulting to masculine, even when the word is lexically female. I don't know Russian, so I can't say for sure, but an L2 speaker of Russian would probably resort to the nominative case over others.

Other resources:

  • What of the fact that L2 languages do often learn new formal features that are not in their L1?
    – SAH
    Feb 19, 2017 at 14:31
  • @SAH The RDH states that post-sensitive period learners don't learn them in the same way that L1 speakers do, although they may get very good at approximating them. Feb 21, 2017 at 2:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.