Postersession 3
Poster #: 108
Topic: Speech and language (incl. deficits)
Friday, Sep 11, 2015
1st floor

Automatic processing of morphosyntax by second language learners

Alina Leminen1, Laura Hedlund2, Suzanne Hut2, Lilli Kimppa2, Miika Leminen2, & Yury Shtyrov1

1Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
2Cognitive Brain Research Unit, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

In our surroundings, we often encounter complex things, comprised of multiple subparts. A striking example of such a complexity is offered by language. Many words are complex, i.e. they have more than one meaningful element (morpheme), e.g., boys, boy+plural marker (inflection); boyish, boy+attenuator (derivation). Recent MMN findings (Leminen et al., 2013, Cortex) have shown that the brain automatically processes native language (L1) inflections by decomposing them into morphemes, while derivations are likely to form unitary representations. However, little is still known about the brain mechanisms responsible for the processing of complex words in a second language (L2). To investigate this issue, we presented L1 speakers, beginning and advanced L2 learners of Finnish with a balanced set of inflected and derived words and complex pseudowords (real stem+pseudosuffix), while recording EEG in a passive multifeature paradigm. L1 speakers replicated the morphological MMN pattern that showed stronger responses for derived than for inflectional words, indicating the existence of full-form memory traces for derivations and decompositional parsing for inflected forms. Crucially, neither beginning nor advanced L2 learners showed such an effect, suggesting weaker memory circuits for L2 derived words and thus likely automatically decompose them into stem and suffix, similar to inflections. All groups showed a syntactic ERP pattern–a stronger response to pseudowords than to real words. We show that morphological parsing takes place already early on in L2 grammar learning, and even advanced L2 learners seem to continue using the parsing route for all types of morphological complexities.