Morphosyntactic processing in late second-language learners.

University of La Laguna, Spain.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 4.49). 08/2009; 22(8):1870-87. DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21304
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT The goal of the present study was to investigate the electrophysiological correlates of second-language (L2) morphosyntactic processing in highly proficient late learners of an L2 with long exposure to the L2 environment. ERPs were collected from 22 English-Spanish late learners while they read sentences in which morphosyntactic features of the L2 present or not present in the first language (number and gender agreement, respectively) were manipulated at two different sentence positions-within and across phrases. The results for a control group of age-matched native-speaker Spanish participants included an ERP pattern of LAN-type early negativity followed by P600 effect in response to both agreement violations and for both sentence positions. The late L2 learner results included a similar pattern, consisting of early negativity followed by P600, in the first sentence position (within-phrase agreement violations) but only P600 effects in the second sentence position (across-phrase agreement violation), as well as significant amplitude and onset latency differences between the gender and the number violation effects in both sentence positions. These results reveal that highly proficient learners can show electrophysiological correlates during L2 processing that are qualitatively similar to those of native speakers, but the results also indicate the contribution of factors such as age of acquisition and transfer processes from first language to L2.

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    ABSTRACT: Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) can reveal online processing differences between native speakers and second language (L2) learners during language comprehension. Using the P600 as a measure of native-likeness, we investigated processing of grammatical gender agreement in highly proficient immersed Romance L2 learners of Dutch. We demonstrate that these late learners consistently fail to show native-like sensitivity to gender violations. This appears to be due to a combination of differences from the gender marking in their L1 and the relatively opaque Dutch gender system. We find that L2 use predicts the effect magnitude of non-finite verb violations, a relatively regular and transparent construction, but not that of gender agreement violations. There were no effects of age of acquisition, length of residence, proficiency or offline gender knowledge. Additionally, a within-subject comparison of stimulus modalities (written vs. auditory) shows that immersed learners may show some of the effects only in the auditory modality; in non-finite verb violations, an early native-like N400 was only present for auditory stimuli. However, modality failed to influence the response to gender. Taken together, the results confirm the persistent problems of Romance learners of Dutch with online gender processing and show that they cannot be overcome by reducing task demands related to the modality of stimulus presentation.
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