Symposium: Human language mechanisms as revealed by the MMN
Friday, Sep 11, 2015
Acquisition of novel word-forms by adult language learners
1Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience, Aarhus University, Denmark
2Cognitive Brain Research Unit, University of Helsinki, Finland
New words and even new grammatical units are acquired throughout one’s life. It has been shown that native (L1) speakers are able to parse novel complex words (derivations, e.g., chickenish) online even when they have never heard them previously. How do second language (L2) learners process novel word-forms in their L2? To address this issue, we recorded EEG in a passive multifeature MMN paradigm and presented L1 speakers, beginning and advanced learners of Finnish with 1) real derived words, 2) novel previously unencountered derivations (real stem+real suffix), and 3) pseudowords (real stem+pseudosuffix). For L1 speakers, real derivations elicited a larger MMN than novel derivations, demonstrating early automatic access of full-form memory traces for real derivations. Moreover, pseudowords showed larger responses than both novel and real derivations, demonstrating a syntactic ERP pattern. Advanced L2 learners also showed a syntactic ERP pattern but only for pseudowords vs. real derivations, whereas there were no differences between real and novel derivations. Finally, ERPs in beginning learners did not differ between any of the stimuli. We conclude that L1 speakers have stronger memory traces for real derived words but they parse and integrate novel derivations more flexibly than L2 learners. Advanced L2 learners show sensitivity to lexicality and to the morphosyntactic structure of complex words, while beginning learners do not, as suggested by the syntactic ERP pattern. Instead, beginners do not distinguish between different morphology types and therefore possibly use the parsing route to decompose all complex items into their constituents.