The Time-Course of Syntactic Constraints in Second Language Sentence Processing

University of Essex

Supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (2008-2009)

This project examined the processing of two types of syntactic dependency in L2 English, reflexive binding and wh-movement across clause boundaries. Participants’ eye movements were recorded while they read short paragraphs on a computer screen, a technique that provides detailed information about the moment-by-moment processes involved in on-line reading comprehension. The principal aim was to investigate the relative timing of syntactic and non-syntactic constraints on dependency formation during real-time L2 comprehension. Our findings suggest that native and non-native language processing is constrained by processing capacity limitations in a similar way, but differs rather strikingly in the relative timing of structural versus discourse-level constraints on anaphor resolution. This is in line with the ‘shallow structure hypothesis’ for L2 processing, which claims that non-native speakers have difficulty building detailed structural representations in real time, thus relying more strongly on non-syntactic than on syntactic cues to interpretation, compared to native speakers. Our results moreover suggest that non-structural information may influence L2 processing earlier than structural information. We found no reliable evidence for any L1 influence on L2 learners’ processing of syntactic dependencies, and no evidence to suggest that the observed L1/L2 processing differences can be accounted for by slower processing speed or working memory shortages in the L2.

Project staff

Claudia Felser (principal investigator)
Ian Cunnings (researcher)