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Slide Slam B12

ERP profiles of L1 and L2 processing of adjective-noun word order violations in Mandarin and English

Slide Slam Session B, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 12:30 - 3:00 pm PDT Log In to set Timezone

Max Wolpert1,2, Jiarui Ao3, Hui Zhang4, Shari Baum2,5, Karsten Steinhauer2,5; 1Integrated Program in Neuroscience, McGill University, 2Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music, 3Faculty of Science, McGill University, 4School of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Nanjing Normal University, 5School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University

INTRODUCTION: Steinhauer (2014) compared L1 and L2 processing of English adjective-noun word order. L1 and L2 groups showed the same ERP profile, a biphasic N400-P600 effect elicited at the second word in the violation condition (e.g., “small dog” vs “dog *small”). Thus, L2 speakers can show native-like processing of adjective-noun pairs, even when their L1 word order differs from English. The present experiment extended consideration to Mandarin Chinese, where adjectives share features with stative verbs (e.g., 张三真聪明, Zhangsan really intelligent, without copula; Paul, 2010). This means that even though adjectives typically precede nouns (短袖, short sleeves), the reverse is also possible (袖短, sleeves short). While similar adjective-noun order between English and Mandarin suggests no specific problem for L2 acquisition, local grammaticality of the noun-adjective order in Mandarin may render these structures more ambiguous. Given these crosslinguistic differences, we investigated 1) whether Mandarin adjective-noun word order violations would elicit the same ERP effects as previously reported in English, 2) whether L2 learners of Mandarin (English L1) can display native-like processing of adjective-noun word order, and 3) whether we could replicate the original ERP results in L1 English speakers. METHODS: To most closely mirror English grammar, we limited Mandarin materials to one-syllable adjectives that can be used naturally without the relativizer DE. We also constructed a preceding sentence context that highly restricted the critical adjective-noun pair to only be grammatical in the standard adjective-noun order (e.g., 玛丽夏天套上短袖/袖*短了, In summer Mary wears short sleeves / sleeves *short). We chose 60 such adjective-noun pairs, and L1 (N=29) and L2 (N=20) participants read the sentences presented word-by-word (SOA = 750 ms) while their EEG was recorded. The Mandarin L2 speakers (N=16, L1 English) also completed the English experiment with the materials from Steinhauer (2014). RESULTS: L1 Mandarin ERPs showed the same N400-P600 pattern for the word order violation as previously reported for English, but also showed a greater N400 for the correct word order at the first word. While L2 Mandarin ERPs showed a trend towards an N400-P600 effect for the violation (p = 0.1), it did not reach significance. The N400-P600 pattern was replicated, however, in the L2 Mandarin participants reading in their L1 English. CONCLUSION: These data suggest that in native speakers, adjective-noun order violations in Mandarin are processed by the same mechanism as in English, but the greater N400 for the correct order at the position of the first word was different from the original study. We interpret this finding as stemming from local lexical effects of single-syllable adjectives, which unlike in English may form a single lexical unit with the single syllable noun. Future experiments will need to consider other Mandarin adjective structures to fully qualify this effect. Although L2 Mandarin processing showed only a non-significant N400-P600 tendency, Mandarin proficiency may have played a role; thus, it remains possible that higher proficiency L2 speakers would show the same pattern as native speakers.

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