The English verb BE, with its complicated forms and multiple functions, has posed great learning difficulties for learners of English both as the first and a second language. Most previous studies on the acquisition of BE have only examined a small number of participants and used data from experimental tasks, which have failed to provide a full picture of how BE is acquired and used by learners. By adopting a corpus-based approach, this study presents a fuller picture of the forms and functions of BE in the interlanguage grammars of Chinese learners of English.
Two learner corpora were used in this research, namely, Hong Kong Baptist University Interlanguage Corpus (HKBUILC) and Chinese Learner English Corpus (CLEC), consisting of English essays written by students from Hong Kong and Mainland China, respectively. Three subcorpora of CLEC (i.e. ST2, ST3, ST4) were adopted, representing Chinese learners at three different English proficiency levels. To obtain a comprehensive distribution of interlanguage BE, all the tokens of BE, including non-target-like, overgenerated BE, as in " Mary was lost the necklace she borrowed from her friend ", and omission of BE, as in "My mother would O angry with me", were annotated with respect to their syntactic and semantic properties. The data were then retrieved type by type for examination by using WordSmith, a concordancing software.
To account for the variable use of BE in learners' interlanguage grammars, this study further investigated a few factors that may influence the production and omission of BE, such as the following linguistic distinctions: (1) copular vs. auxiliary BE; (2) finite (am, is, are, was, were) vs. nonfinite (be, being, been) BE; (3) stage-level vs. individual-level predicate types (Carlson, 1977); (4) different post-BE constituents · · e.g. ergative vs. unergative verbs (Perlmutter, 1978); and (5) the differences between L1 and L2 (i.e. English BE vs. Mandarin Shi/Cantonese Haih).