Early neurophysiological indices of second language morphosyntax learning

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Abstract

Humans show variable degrees of success in acquiring a second language (L2). In many cases, morphological and syntactic knowledge remain deficient, although some learners succeed in reaching nativelike levels, even if they begin acquiring their L2 relatively late. In this study, we use psycholinguistic, online language proficiency tests and a neurophysiological index of syntactic processing, the syntactic mismatch negativity (sMMN) to local agreement violations, to compare behavioural and neurophysiological markers of grammar processing between native speakers (NS) of English and non-native speakers (NNS). Variable grammar proficiency was measured by psycholinguistic tests. When NS heard ungrammatical word sequences lacking agreement between subject and verb (e.g. *we kicks), the MMN was enhanced compared with syntactically legal sentences (e.g. he kicks). More proficient NNS also showed this difference, but less proficient NNS did not. The main cortical sources of the MMN responses were localised in bilateral superior temporal areas, where, crucially, source strength of grammar-related neuronal activity correlated significantly with grammatical proficiency of individual L2 speakers as revealed by the psycholinguistic tests. As our results show similar, early MMN indices to morpho-syntactic agreement violations among both native speakers and non-native speakers with high grammar proficiency, they appear consistent with the use of similar brain mechanisms for at least certain aspects of L1 and L2 grammars.

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