LINGUIST List 14.3079

Tue Nov 11 2003

Diss: Psycholing: Sabourin: 'Grammatical...'

Editor for this issue: Takako Matsui <>


  1. lsabourin, Grammatical Gender and Second Language Processing

Message 1: Grammatical Gender and Second Language Processing

Date: Tue, 11 Nov 2003 00:56:00 +0000
From: lsabourin <>
Subject: Grammatical Gender and Second Language Processing

Institution: University of Groningen
Program: Center for Language and Cognition
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2003

Author: Laura Sabourin 

Dissertation Title: Grammatical Gender and Second Language Processing:
An ERP Study

Linguistic Field: Psycholinguistics, Neurolinguistics, 
Language Acquisition

Dissertation Director 1: Ger G. J. de Haan
Dissertation Director 2: Laurie A. Stowe

Dissertation Abstract: 

Second language (L2) speakers were tested on their ability with the
Dutch gender system. The goals of the research was to determine L2
speakers' overall ability to retrieve a noun's gender, to see if they
could apply rules for gender agreement, to determine how L2 speakers
process grammatical gender information and whether an effect of the
native language (L1) could be found. These goals were investigated by
having participants do either off-line or on-line grammaticality
judgment tasks. L2 speakers of from three language backgrounds were
studied: German (similar gender system to Dutch), Romance (gender
system not similar to Dutch), or English (no gender system).

Off-line Tasks: In a control task looking at the L2 verb system it was
found that all L2 groups performed at a native speaker level. However,
while acquiring grammatical gender seems to be possible at the lexical
level, all participants showed problems with gender agreement (with no
group performing at a native level). A hierarchy of performance can be
seen with the German group performing the best followed by the Romance
speakers and then the English group, who only performed at
chance. These results map directly onto a strong transfer effect. The
German group has the closest gender system to the Dutch system and
performed the best of the L2 group. The Romance group has a gender
system in their L1 and although it is not related to the Dutch system
it seems to be the case that having gender in the L1 is enough to give
a group of participants an advantage in acquiring a new gender
system. The English group, with no L1 gender system, has no
information that can help them tap into the L2 gender system.

On-Line Tasks: The ERP results for the Dutch speakers showed a P600 to
all sentence types (control and gender sentences). This is considered
to reflect the fact that violations of grammatical gender agreement
are syntactic in nature. The ERP data for all L2 groups show a delayed
P600 with a limited scalp distribution. This suggests that for these
sentence types only a quantitative difference is present between L1
and L2 speakers. The ERP patterns for grammatical gender processing
show very different results. Only the German group showed any patterns
similar at all to the native speakers. However, even the German group,
only showed similar processing for gender violations where the
information was present in the form of a definite determiner. This is
likely because when the determiner cues access to gender they are able
to directly map onto their L1 system. Both the Romance and English
groups performed poorly on the on-line task. Both groups did show, for
some gender conditions, significant differences between the
grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. However, neither group showed
a clear P600 pattern.

L2 learners can be found who can acquire and process parts of an L2
grammar with native-like ability. However, there are limitations to
this ability that are greatly influenced by the L1 of the
learners. Within the verb domain where there are overt markers for
both subject-verb agreement and for finiteness all the L2 groups
tested here were able to show both native-like knowledge and
processing. Not surprisingly their processing was slower, but
nonetheless, the processing is qualitatively very similar to the
native speaker processing patterns.

Performance on gender showed a strong effect of transfer. The ability
to acquire gender knowledge was modulated by the presence of the
abstract category gender in the L1: both the German and Romance groups
had an advantage over the English group. On the other hand the ability
to process L2 gender similarly to L1 was modulated by the presence of
very similar surface features in the L1, an abstract category appears
not to be enough.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue