Language history attenuates syntactic prediction in L1 processing

Abstract

An eye-tracking experiment in the Visual World Paradigm was conducted to examine the effects of language history on the predictive parsing of sentences containing relative clauses in the first-learned language of fluent bilingual adults. We compared heritage speakers of Spanish (HSs)—who had spent most of their lives immersed in an English-dominant society—to Spanish–English late bilinguals (LBs), who did not begin immersion in an English-dominant society until adulthood. Consistent with studies of monolinguals, the LBs demonstrated a subject/object relative clause processing asymmetry, i.e. a processing advantage during subject relative clauses and a processing disadvantage during object relative clauses. This suggests that the LBs actively predicted the syntactic structure of subject relative clauses, consistent with the active filler hypothesis. The HSs, on the other hand, did not exhibit this processing asymmetry, suggesting less active prediction. We conclude, therefore, that decreased exposure to the first-learned language causes less active prediction in first-language processing, which causes both disadvantages, and interestingly, advantages, in processing speed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Despite the typological and methodological robustness of the SRC preference, it is likely not a complete universal (e.g. Basque: Carreiras et al. 2010). Even in Basque, however, an asymmetry exists, such that ORCs are easier to process than SRCs.

  2. 2.

    A reviewer suggested that we include proficiency as its own predictor variable, along with group, in our regression models. However, we decided against this in the present study because proficiency was strongly correlated with group (r = 0.65, p < 0.001), which would have reduced the reliability of the models’ parameters (Hutcheson and Sofroniou 1999). A follow-up study (Stover et al. in progress) will investigate the role of continuous measures of language dominance in explaining the group patterns observed here.

  3. 3.

    Note that Traxler et al. (2002) only analyzed fixations on the matrix verb itself. However, since comprehension of the object of the matrix verb is crucial for our participants to select the correct image, we chose to include both the matrix verb and its object in this region. Future analyses will examine whether particular events within each region contributed significantly to changes in fixation proportions.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank our study participants, Richard G. Schwartz, and Second Language Acquisition Lab research assistants Daniela Castillo, Omar Ortiz, Christina Dadurian, Andrea Monge, Matthew Stuck, and Armando Tapia.

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Stern, M.C., Madsen, C.N., Stover, L.M. et al. Language history attenuates syntactic prediction in L1 processing. J Cult Cogn Sci 3, 235–255 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41809-019-00048-y

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Keywords

  • Bilingual processing
  • Relative clause processing
  • Active filler
  • Prediction
  • Visual world paradigm
  • Language dominance