To fully account for a language user’s competence of a language it is necessary to explain how different types of linguistic knowledge are used during sentence comprehension. A speaker of two languages presents a particular challenge as it is necessary to describe comprehension in the non-native and the native language. Previous psycholinguistic research investigating L2 acquisition has been primarily concerned with the representation of languages in bilinguals, and has focussed on two issues: the organization of the lexical and conceptual system, and the access of lexical-semantic information (see Kotz & Elston-Guettler, 2007
for a recent review).
The question of how non-native speakers comprehend syntactic structure in their L2 has received less attention, and previous research had only sparsely provided detailed and conclusive comparisons of native and non-native online syntactic comprehension. More recently though, L2 syntactic comprehension of, for example, phrase structure constraints and verb agreement has been investigated with online measures such as ERPs (Hahne, 2001
; Rossi, Gugler, Hahne, & Friederici, 2006
; Tokowicz & MacWhinney, 2005
; Weber-Fox & Neville, 1996
; Weber-Fox & Neville, 2001
). The use of such a temporally fine-grained measure allows investigating how L2 speakers of a language process syntactic information while sentence comprehension unfolds in time. Most importantly, such an online measure can reveal implicit processing of syntactic knowledge that may be distinct from explicit syntactic knowledge as evidenced in grammaticality judgment (see for a similar argument, Tokowicz & MacWhinney, 2005
). However, there is no ERP evidence on a second syntactic phenomenon namely syntactic ambiguity in the L2. Thus, the focus of the current L2 study was to investigate syntactic ambiguity and syntactic anomaly in parallel in non-native and native readers of English.
Monolingual research on syntactic processing has reported early syntactic components such as the early left anterior negativity (ELAN) and left anterior negativity (LAN) (for an overview see Friederici, 2002
), and a late centro-parietal positivity called the P600 (e.g., Osterhout & Holcomb, 1992
). The P600 is evoked by a number of different syntactic manipulations such as violations of agreement (Hagoort, Brown, & Groothusen, 1993
; Osterhout & Mobley, 1995
; Vos, Gunter, Kolk, & Mulder, 2001
), of verb inflection (Friederici, Pfeifer, & Hahne, 1993
; Gunter, Stowe, & Mulder, 1997
), of case inflection (Münte, Heinze, Matzke, Wieringa, & Johannes, 1998
), of pronoun inflection (Coulson, King, & Kutas, 1998
), of phrase structure (Friederici et al., 1993
; Hahne & Friederici, 1999
; Neville, Nicol, Barss, Forster, & Garrett, 1991
), of case marking (Coulson et al., 1998
; Friederici & Frisch, 2000
; Frisch & Schlesewsky, 2001
), and of verb-argument structure (Friederici & Frisch, 2000
; Frisch, Hahne, & Friederici, 2004
; Osterhout, Holcomb, & Swinney, 1994
In addition, a P600 is also elicited by syntactic ambiguity (Friederici, Hahne, & Mecklinger, 1996
; Frisch, Schlesewsky, Saddy, & Alpermann, 2002
; Kaan & Swaab, 2003
; Mecklinger, Schriefers, Steinhauer, & Friederici, 1995
; Osterhout & Holcomb, 1992
; Osterhout & Holcomb, 1993
), and by increased syntactic complexity (Friederici, Hahne, & Saddy, 2002
; Kaan, Harris, Gibson, & Holcomb, 2000
; Kaan & Swaab, 2003
). Some authors have argued that the P600 elicited by outright syntactic anomaly runs a different time course and displays a different scalp distribution than the P600 elicited by syntactic ambiguity (see Kaan & Swaab, 2003
). While Hagoort and colleagues (Hagoort, Brown, & Osterhout, 1999
; Van Berkum, Brown, & Hagoort, 1999
) have linked the frontally distributed P600 to the revision of non-preferred ambiguous structures, Friederici et al. (2002)
extended the frontal P600 to sentence complexity. On the other hand, Kaan and Swaab (2003)
disputed the fact that the processing of sentence complexity and non-preferred syntactic structure is restricted to a frontal P600. Their results showed that the integration of syntactically complex and non-preferred structures also affects the posterior P600 that has been linked to repair processes of anomalous syntactic structure. Furthermore, the posterior P600 amplitude rise and latency was larger for anomalous than non-preferred structures. These results suggest that posterior positivities may reflect both revision and repair and can be distinguished by amplitude rise and latency.
ERP reports on L2 syntactic processing have not been very consistent. Weber-Fox and Neville (2001)
investigated open/closed class word processing and reported an age of acquisition (AoA) effect (latency delays) for closed class words (N280), but not for open class words (N350). A P600 was only elicited by phrase structure violations if syntactic rules were acquired before the age of 10 (1996), while an early left anterior negativity (N125) was not found in any of the tested bilingual groups. A second and later left-lateralized negativity (300–500 ms) showed a bilateral distribution after an AoA of 10 years. Hahne and Friederici (2001)
studied phrase structure violations in late (after the age of 10) L2 learners and did not find any syntax related ERP effects. In another study Hahne (2001)
reported P600 effects (but no ELAN) for late L2 Russian learners of German. A similar result was reported by Müller and colleagues (Mueller, Hahne, Fujii, & Friederici, 2005
). Native adult German speakers acquired a miniature grammar of Japanese. Phrase structure violations resulted in a P600. In a recent study by Rossi et al. (2006)
the authors propose that the variable results in L2 syntactic processing may not just depend on AoA, but also on the level of achieved L2 proficiency. Comparing the ERPs of late high and low proficient German and Italian learners of Italian and German, respectively, they reported a comparable syntactic processing pattern for both phrase structure and agreement violations in late high proficient learners. Late low proficient learners showed a bi-phasic pattern (ELAN/P600) to phrase structure violations with a reduced and delayed P600, but only a delayed P600 to agreement violations. The authors claim that these differences across groups and syntactic structures suggest deviant neural processes in online syntactic and thematic processing in L2 learners despite highly advanced behavioural skills. However, the fact that native-like syntactic processing profiles can be seen in late proficient L2 learners calls into question whether AoA is the sole and driving force in L2 attainment of syntactic knowledge. Lastly, Tokowicz and MacWhinney (2005)
addressed the critical issue of syntactic transfer effects in late L2 learners. Comparing tense-marking that was comparable between L1 and L2, determiner number agreement that differed between L1 and L2, and determiner gender agreement that was specific to L2, they reported P600 effects for similar sentence structures in L1/L2 and L2-specific syntax. In addition, they reported dissociations of online P600 effects and offline behavioural responses. While L2 learners displayed online sensitivity to grammatical violations, they responded at chance level during grammatical judgment. The authors concluded that behavioural task demands could cause such a dissociation (see for a similar argument McLaughlin, Osterhout, & Kim, 2004
Next to considering the effects of cross-linguistic syntactic similarities, the effect of syntactic ambiguity resolution is a completely understudied issue in L2 online sentence processing, and has not been investigated with ERPs so far. However, eye-movement recordings show that highly proficient L2 readers can be “garden-pathed” (i.e., go by the preferred reading of a sentence structure (Frazier & Rayner, 1982
) in the same manner as L1 readers (i.e., Frenck-Mestre & Pynte, 1997
; Juffs & Harrington, 1996
)). However, sensitivity to syntactic ambiguity appears to be critically influenced by AoA, proficiency, and cross-linguistic syntactic similarity (for a review see Frenck-Mestre, 2005
). As reported in Dussias (2003)
, Fernàndez (1999)
presented results that late learners of English (L1 Spanish) used L1 parsing strategies while processing syntactic ambiguity (relative clause attachment (RC)) in English), while early learners varied in their attachment preference with some showing a monolingual profile and others showing late learner profiles. Similarly, Dussias (2003)
compared proficient L2 speakers of Spanish or English to monolingual speakers of the respective L2 while they were reading temporarily ambiguous sentences (RCs). This approach allowed testing whether L1 parsing strategies influence L2 parsing. Based on respective Spanish and English monolingual results Dussias predicted that if L2 speakers use the same structural and contextual constraints as a native speaker of the respective L2, then L2 speakers of Spanish should use a high attachment strategy and interpret a RC noun phrase (NP) as referring to the first noun of a complex NP, while L2 speakers of English should apply low attachment, that is, should attach the RC to the second noun of a complex NP. Results from an offline questionnaire did not confirm the main predictions. Data from an online behavioural study supported low attachment preference in L1 Spanish-L2 English speakers, but not high attachment for L1 English-L2 Spanish speakers. The seemingly contradictory offline and online behavioural results were explained by processing delays that may result from a dual syntactic system that prefers late closure, or by language exposure that may favour the syntactic attachment used in the current language context.
Taken together, the L2 ERP results on syntactic anomaly detection and the offline and online behavioural results on L2 syntactic ambiguity point to the necessity to study L2 syntactic comprehension online, to directly compare L1 and L2 syntactic processing similarities and differences, and to directly compare L2 syntactic anomaly and syntactic ambiguity processing. Such an approach can deliver critical results and implications for the theoretical formation of the human parsing system.
Here, we tested L2 syntactic knowledge in early and highly proficient L2 readers of English by directly comparing the processing of temporary syntactic ambiguity and syntactic anomaly. The choice of early high proficient L2 readers of English rather than late L2 readers was to ensure that if the L2 syntactic processing system is calibrated to processing syntactic knowledge in a native-like manner, detection of temporary syntactic ambiguity and of syntactic anomaly should result in similar ERP patters as in native readers of English. Thus, in addition to early and highly proficient L2 readers, a monolingual English group was tested to confirm this hypothesis.
Furthermore, we wanted to find out if (1) phrase structure violation that adheres to the same syntactic principles in English and Spanish results in a comparable posterior P600 effect in non-native and native readers of English. For example, unacceptable English sentences such as “The broker hoped to sell the stock was sent to jail.” and the Spanish translation equivalent “El broker deseaba vender el stock fue enviado a la carcel.” would result in a syntactic violation. In English the auxiliary “was” violates phrase structure rules if the initial reading of the sentence is an active clause reading. In Spanish the sentence requires a relative pronoun “que” that introduces a relative clause. However, the violation position in the respective sentences varies between English and Spanish.
With respect to (2) temporary syntactic ambiguity (here induced by verb subcategorization information in English) we predicted that if temporary syntactic ambiguity is distinct in L2, then highly proficient L2 readers of English should show a similar P600 pattern as monolingual readers of English (see Hoover and Dwivedi (1998)
, Juffs (1998)
, Tokowicz and MacWhinney (2005)
for similar arguments on L2 syntactic specificity). To illustrate, temporary syntactic ambiguity in an English sentence such as “The broker persuaded to sell the stock
…” is not possible in a Spanish translation equivalent “El broker convenció para vender el stock
…”. Here, the transitive verb (convencer
) requires an accusative object (a alguien
) and the following complement needs to be preceded by a preposition (para
) to render the sentence acceptable. Thus, the Spanish translation equivalent “El broker convencido para vender el stock fue enviado a la carcel.
” of the acceptable English sentence “The broker persuaded to sell the stock was sent to jail.
” does not resolve temporary syntactic ambiguity as both the short and the long Spanish sentence examples require (i) a prepositional phrase to introduce the complement, and (ii) the inflection of the main verb “convencer
” is marked differently in the two sentences (convenció vs. convencido
Following the results of Osterhout and Holcomb (1992)
and Kaan and Swaab (2003)
, the current study should also allow to critically evaluate (3) whether a P600 elicited by temporary syntactic ambiguity shows a more frontal or a similar posterior P600 effect as outright syntactic violations (i.e., phrase structure violations). If the P600 elicited by temporary syntactic ambiguity shows a more posterior distribution, but a different latency and amplitude rise than the P600 elicited by syntactic phrase structure violation then both revision and repair of syntactic structure coincide in a posterior P600 effect. In addition, we expected N400 effects on final words based on semantic constraints imposed by the sentence context (Osterhout & Holcomb, 1992
). If indeed, L2 readers of English process semantic constraints in a similar fashion as L1 readers of English there should be comparable N400 effects in the two groups.