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Lecture | LUCL Colloquium - Fall 2015

LUCL Colloquium: Changing parsing routines in the native language...with the help of experience

  • Paola Giuli Dussias (Penn State University)
Friday 27 November 2015
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
Room 003

Changing parsing routines in the native language... with the help of experience


Research shows that adult native speakers of Spanish immersed in an English-speaking environment adopt the processing routines of their second language (L2) when processing their first language (L1) (Dussias & Sagarra, 2007). In this talk I examine the dynamics of this shift by testing whether short-term exposure to L1 or L2 materials requiring contrasting processing routines can influence bilinguals’ parsing strategies. If the parser’s configuration is related to language exposure (Gennari & MacDonald, 2009), bilinguals’ processing preferences are expected to change as a function of the frequency with which the relevant structure appears in the environment. I investigated this in the context of syntactically ambiguous relative clauses as in: 

(1)  Arrestaron a la hermana del hombre que estaba enferma. 
Someone arrested the sister of the man  who was ill. 

The relative clause ‘que estaba enferma’ (‘who was ill’) is syntactically ambiguous because it can modify the higher noun (‘hermana’, ‘sister’; high attachment) or the lower noun (‘hombre’, ‘man’; low attachment). Because ‘enferma’ (‘ill’) is marked with feminine grammatical gender, the correct interpretation is one where the relative clause modifies ‘hermana’ (also marked for feminine gender), and any initial ambiguity is resolved. 

Fifty-four native Spanish speakers highly proficient in their L2 English (measured by several objective tests) were recruited. The participants were all residing in an English-speaking environment. The study involved three phases. Phase 1 employed eye tracking to assess whether participants initially preferred high attachment or low attachment resolutions when reading Spanish. In Phase 2, participants were administered a 5-day ‘treatment’ study that exposed them to 120 relative clause constructions that favored the opposite attachment parse to their initial preference, i.e. those with an initial high attachment preference were given frequent exposure to low attachment sentences, and vice-versa. To examine whether exposure to the L2 (English) could trigger changes in the L1 (Spanish), each treatment group was randomly assigned to receive the treatment in their L1 Spanish or L2 English. In Phase 3, eye movement records were collected immediately after the treatment (Posttest), and one week later, (Delayed Posttest), to determine participants’ attachment preferences after the treatment. 

Results reveal that "low attachers" who received high-attachment treatment in Spanish showed evidence of high attachment preferences at posttest and delayed posttest. The "low attachers" who received high-attachment treatment in English showed evidence of high attachment preferences at posttest, despite the fact that the input during treatment was in their L2, but these preferences appear to neutralize at delayed posttest. The "high attachers" who received low attachment treatment in their L2 English, showed a low attachment preference but at the delayed posttest, suggesting the need for a period of consolidation. The "high attachers" who received treatment in Spanish show only a temporary shift toward low attachment preference. The results suggest that exposure to a given structure in the L2 can influence parsing strategies in the L1. Findings support usage-based models of sentence comprehension (MacDonald & Seidenberg, 2006). 

Dussias, P. E. and Sagarra, N. (2007). The effect of exposure on syntactic parsing in Spanish-English bilinguals. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10(1), 101-116. 

Gennari, S. P., and MacDonald, M. C. (2009), Linking comprehension to production: The case of relative clause. Cognition, 111, 1-23. 

MacDonald, M. C., and Seidenberg, M. S. (2006). Constraint satisfaction accounts of lexical and sentence comprehension. In M. J. Traxler & M. A. Gernsbacher (Eds.), Handbook of Psycholinguistics, 2nd Edition (pp. 581-611). London: Elsevier, Inc.

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