The role of the native language in second-language syntactic processing

  • Gunnar Jacob

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The present thesis investigates in how properties of a reader’s first language (L1) have an influence on syntactic processing in a second language (L2). While the Competition Model (Bates & MacWhinney, 1982, 1987, 1989, MacWhinney, 1997) predicts that syntactic properties of the L1 can have an influence on L2 processing, the Shallow-Structure Account (Clahsen & Felser, 2006) suggests that an L2 speaker’s representation of an L2 sentence is shallower, lacks syntactic detail, and is therefore not detailed enough for properties of the L1 to have an influence on L2 processing (Papadopoulou & Clahsen, 2003). In two sets of studies, I investigate whether L2 speakers of English activate syntactic information from their L1 while processing English sentences. In Experiments 1-4, native speakers of German, and control groups of native speakers of French and English, are confronted with English sentences consisting of a word order which exists in both English and German, but which represents different underlying syntactic structures in both languages. Results suggest that native speakers of German activate syntactic information from their L1 while reading such sentences. Experiments 5-7 represent an attempt to address both the issue of L1 influence and the issue of shallow processing within the context of the same experimental design. Native speakers of German, and a control group of native English speakers, read grammatically incorrect English sentences with a word order which would either be grammatically correct in German, or grammatically incorrect in both English and German. In this set of experiments, we found evidence against an influence of syntactic properties of the L1. Results also suggest that contrary to the predictions of the shallow-structure account, L2 speakers fully parse the syntactic structure of an L2 sentence, and compute detailed syntactic representations.
    Date of Award2009
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorRoger van Gompel (Supervisor) & Wayne Murray (Supervisor)


    • Second-language processing
    • Syntax
    • Bilingualism

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