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Processing L2 tense: Linguistic complexity, language experience and working memory effects

Nuria Sagarra

Tuesday, April 03, 2012, 03:00pm - 04:00pm

Visiting Scholar, Carnegie-Mellon University and Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain

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Processing a foreign language as an adult is cognitively demanding, and working memory limitations force learners to process L2 input selectively. Latin, Spanish and other morphologically rich languages can mark temporal reference lexically (adverbs) and morphologically (verbal inflections). In laboratory studies with a subset of Latin, Ellis and Sagarra (2010a, 2011) and Ellis et al. (forthcoming) found that learners attended to the cues on which they were trained (adverb, verb), that those without training focused more on adverbs, and that this adverb bias was augmented in L1s with no (Chinese) or impoverished (English) morphology. However, when linguistic complexity increased, learners were lexical regardless of their L1. In self-paced reading and eyetracking studies with a complete L2 (Spanish), Ellis and Sagarra (2010b), Sagarra (2007), and Sagarra and Ellis (forthcoming) reported that: (1) beginning learners relied so heavily on adverbs that they were insensitive to adverb-verb tense incongruencies unless they had high working memory capacity, (2) intermediate and advanced learners were sensitive to tense incongruencies, and native speakers of a morphologically rich L1 (Romanian) looked longer at verbs than native speakers of a morphologically poor L1 (English), and (3) transfer effects increased with L2 proficiency level. The results of these studies indicate that linguistic complexity, language experience and cognitive individual differences at early stages of acquisition modulate L2 morphological processing. These findings inform linguistic and cognitive models of second language acquisition and suggest that learners start with the least effortful interpretation and later on recur to L1 transfer.

Nuria Sagarra