How Do French–English Bilinguals Pull Verb Particle Constructions Off? Factors Influencing Second Language Processing of Unfamiliar Structures at the Syntax-Semantics Interface


An important challenge in bilingualism research is to understand the mechanisms underlying sentence processing in a second language and whether they are comparable to those underlying native processing. Here, we focus on verb-particle constructions (VPCs) that are among the most difficult elements to acquire in L2 English. The verb and the particle form a unit, which often has a non-compositional meaning (e.g., look up or chew out), making the combined structure semantically opaque. However, bilinguals with higher levels of English proficiency can develop a good knowledge of the semantic properties of VPCs (Blais and Gonnerman, 2013). A second difficulty is that in a sentence context, the particle can be shifted after the direct object of the verb (e.g., The professor looked it up). The processing is more challenging when the object is long (e.g., The professor looked the student’s last name up). This shifted structure favors syntactic processing at the expense of VPC semantic processing. We sought to determine whether or not bilinguals’ reading time (RT) patterns would be similar to those observed for native monolinguals (Gonnerman and Hayes, 2005) when reading VPCs in sentential contexts. French–English bilinguals were tested for English language proficiency, working memory and explicit VPC semantic knowledge. During a self-paced reading task, participants read 78 sentences with VPCs that varied according to parameters that influence native speakers’ reading dynamics: verb-particle transparency, particle adjacency and length of the object noun phrase (NP; 2, 3, or 5 words). RTs in a critical region that included verbs, NPs and particles were measured. Results revealed that RTs were modulated by participants’ English proficiency, with higher proficiency associated with shorter RTs. Examining participants’ explicit semantic knowledge of VPCs and working memory, only readers with more native-like knowledge of VPCs and a high working memory presented RT patterns that were similar to those of monolinguals. Therefore, given the necessary lexical and computational resources, bilingual processing of novel structures at the syntax-semantics interface follows the principles influencing native processing. The findings are in keeping with theories that postulate similar representations and processing in L1 and L2 modulated by processing difficulty.

Frontiers in Psychology, 9
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Alexandre Herbay
Alexandre Herbay
Scientist & Developer

My work interests include data science, computer science, cognitive neuroscience and linguistics.