The "semantic P600" in second language processing: When syntax conflicts with semantics
SourceNeuropsychologia, 127, (2019), pp. 131-147
Article / Letter to editor
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In sentences like "the mouse that chased the cat was hungry", the syntactically correct interpretation (the mouse chases the cat) is contradicted by semantic and pragmatic knowledge. Previous research has shown that L1 speakers sometimes base sentence interpretation on this type of knowledge (so-called "shallow" or "good-enough" processing). We made use of both behavioral and ERP measurements to investigate whether L2 learners differ from native speakers in the extent to which they engage in "shallow" syntactic processing. German learners of Dutch as well as Dutch native speakers read sentences containing relative clauses (as in the example above) for which the plausible thematic roles were or were not reversed, and made plausibility judgments. The results show that behaviorally, L2 learners had more difficulties than native speakers to discriminate plausible from implausible sentences. In the ERPs, we replicated the previously reported finding of a "semantic P600" for semantic reversal anomalies in native speakers, probably reflecting the effort to resolve the syntax-semantics conflict. In L2 learners, though, this P600 was largely attenuated and surfaced only in those trials that were judged correctly for plausibility. These results generally point at a more prevalent, but not exclusive occurrence of shallow syntactic processing in L2 learners.
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