MORPHOLOGY IN BILINGUAL LANGUAGE PROCESSING: THE ROLE OF SECOND LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY IN ACQUIRING GRAMMATICAL GENDER

Open Access
Author:
Bobb, Susan Christine
Graduate Program:
Psychology
Degree:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Dissertation
Date of Defense:
August 22, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Judith Fran Kroll, Committee Chair
  • Carrie Neal Jackson, Committee Chair
  • Daniel J Weiss, Committee Member
  • Maya Misra, Committee Member
  • Paola Eulalia Dussias, Committee Member
Keywords:
  • critical period
  • morphology
  • bilingualism
  • grammatical gender
Abstract:
The goal of the present study was to further clarify constraints to language learning and help address questions about L2 learning that have not yet been fully resolved. The experiments examined the degree to which L2 learners and proficient bilinguals are able to fully access grammatical and morphological features of the L2. The specific aim of the study was to identify the ability of intermediate and advanced English-German bilinguals to comprehend the assignment of grammatical gender and to interpret the meaning of compounds. Grammatical gender is a feature that is typically considered difficult to acquire in the L2. Particularly for those whose native language does not mark gender, such as English, the question has been raised whether full acquisition of gender can take place and under which circumstances. Experiment 1 set out to investigate the sensitivity of English-German and German-English L2 learners to grammatical gender and introduced the paradigm of translation recognition with simple nouns as a way to investigate gender processing. Results indicated that English-German participants had particular difficulties in rejecting correct noun translations with the wrong gender, and proficiency did not modulate these effects. In contrast, German-English participants showed robust gender effects, in which participants took longer to reject wrong translations whose gender matched the gender of the correct translation compared to translations whose gender did not match that of the correct translation. Results suggest that native speakers of German are sensitive to gender matches and mismatches across translations, and leave open the possibility that L2 learners of German who achieve native-like language competency may eventually begin to show sensitivity to gender using this task. Data from event-related potentials with English-German participants corroborated these findings, showing no statistical support for sensitivity to gender in noun processing, and underscoring the sensitivity of L2 learners of German to semantics in translation. Data from a metalinguistic gender assignment task, however, suggested that both English-German L2 learners and German-English L2 learners were sensitive to the phonological gender distribution in German, and L2 learners of German may use these distributions as a way to behaviorally approximate native-like gender use. In a final step, morphological processing in compounding was investigated, and results for both language groups revealed sensitivity in processing internal gender agreement in compounds, although the pattern of data were not in the predicted direction. Together, the results of these experiments confirm previous results on the difficulty of L2 gender processing in German (e.g., e.g., Sabourin, Stowe, & de Haan, 2006) and also appear to show dissociations between tasks that require more automatic processing and those that are under the participant’s control.