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Poster C23, Thursday, November 9, 10:00 – 11:15 am, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

Neurocognitive Correlates of Child and Adult Syntactic Processing: Evidence from Classroom Second Language Learners

Fatemeh Abdollahi1, Janet G. van Hell1;1The Pennsylvania State University

Second languages (L2) are taught in many classrooms worldwide, but we know relatively little about the neural correlates of syntactic processing in L2 classroom learners, and the extent to which individual variation in cognitive abilities and first language (L1) fluency impact L2 processing, particularly in children (Pufahl & Rhodes, 2011; Van Hell & Tokowicz, 2010). The Competition Model (MacWhinney & Bates, 1989) emphasizes the role of transfer of knowledge from the L1 to L2 where grammatical structures are similar between languages, and competition between L1 and L2 in cases where grammatical structures are dissimilar. In this study, English adult (18+yr) and child (~10yr) intermediate learners of L2 Spanish read grammatical and ungrammatical L2 sentences where the L2 sentences had either similar morphosyntactic structures in L1 and L2, dissimilar morphosyntactic structures in L1 and L2, or had a unique morphosyntactic structure in the L2 that is not present in the L1 (Tokowicz & MacWhinney, 2005), as well as ungrammatical and grammatical L1 sentences, while Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) were recorded. This manipulation of L1-L2 grammatical similarity allowed for testing of impact of L1 on L2 processing. Several individual difference measures of affect and executive function were also gathered to examine how learners' background may influence neurocognitive correlates of syntactic processing in the L2. In the L1, adults, but not children, showed a robust P600 effect for all grammatical structures, indicating that processing of L1 syntax in 10yr olds may be distinctly different from that of adults. For the L2, traditional group-based ERP analyses showed that adult L2 learners' sensitivity to syntactic violations in the L2 (i.e., P600 or N400 effects) was related to their grammatical similarity with L1 structures. However, behavioral performance (accuracy in grammaticality judgment) was at chance. Group-level ERP-analyses showed that children were not significantly sensitive to L2 syntactic violations. In order to examine individual variation in language processing, Response Dominance (RDI) and Response Magnitude Indices (RMI; Tanner, McLaughlin, Herschensohn & Osterhout, 2013) were calculated for adults, dividing learners into profiles of N400 or P600 dominance, where magnitude of response was calculated. Clear individual differences in response dominance during L2 processing emerged (RDI (N=20): 9 participants P600 dominant; 8 N400 dominant; 3 neutral RD), previously averaged out in traditional group-based analyses. Furthermore, greater variation was present in response magnitude in the L2 over L1, suggesting response magnitude may change with experience. Correlations between RDI, RMI and individual difference measures of affect, executive function and working memory revealed no clear patterns. These results show there is great variability in L2 learners, not captured in traditional group-based analyses. Finding distinctly different processing in child classroom L2 learners compared to their adult counterparts demonstrates a clear need for further investigation into both L1 and L2 processing of child learners. Ultimately, this variability may be critical in developing models of adult and child classroom learner L2 syntactic processing.

Topic Area: Language Development

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