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Processing gender and number agreement in L1 and L2 Spanish

Nuria Sagarra

Wednesday, April 04, 2012, 10:00am - 11:00am

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

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Most adult learners cannot attain native competence in a second language (L2). Some approaches maintain that L2 learners cannot access features unavailable in L1 after puberty (Hawkins and Franceschina, 2004) and that they process only superficial structures (Clahsen and Felser, 2006), due to a maturationally constrained critical period for L2 acquisition. In contrast, other approaches hold that late learners may acquire all L2 grammatical features (White et al., 2004) and that they may gain complex structural processing (Hopp, 2007). These studies aim to test these models and to investigate the role of language proficiency (beginners vs. intermediates) and processing cost (animate vs. inanimate nouns; gender vs. number agreement). Beginning and intermediate adult English-speaking learners of Spanish and Spanish monolinguals completed a self-paced reading and a grammaticality judgment task containing sentences with noun-adjective gender/number agreement/disagreement. The results reveal that intermediates, but not beginners, show qualitatively similar reactions to monolinguals (gender and number concord/discord distinctions), confirming the importance of proficiency while suggesting native-like processing by L2 learners. They also show that both grammatical (gender, number) and semantic (animacy) features differentially impact concord processing for both natives and L2 learners, and that working memory plays a role in developing L2 processing skills. These findings indicate that adult learners can develop processing patterns qualitatively similar to those of native speakers and that proficiency and working memory influence their acquisition.

Nuria Sagarra