What Are the Modulators of Cross-Language Syntactic Activation During Natural Reading?

Naomi Vingron , Pauline Palma , Jason W. Gullifer , Veronica Whitford , Deanna Friesen , Debra Jared & Debra Titone
Frontiers in Communication, 2021-07-06


Bilinguals juggle knowledge of multiple languages, including syntactic constructions that can mismatch (e.g., the red car, la voiture rouge; Mary sees it, Mary le voit). We used eye-tracking to examine whether French-English (n = 23) and English-French (n = 21) bilingual adults activate non-target language syntax during English L2 (Experiment 1) and L1 (Experiment 2) reading, and whether this differed from functionally monolingual English reading (Experiment 3, n = 26). People read English sentences containing syntactic constructions that were either partially shared across languages (adjective-noun constructions) or completely unshared (object-pronoun constructions). These constructions were presented in an intact form, or in a violated form that was French-consistent or French-inconsistent. For both L2 and L1 reading, bilinguals read French-consistent adjective-noun violations relatively quickly, suggesting cross-language activation. This did not occur when the same people read object-pronoun constructions manipulated in the same manner. Surprisingly, English readers exposed to French in their lifetime but functionally monolingual, also read French-consistent violations for adjective-noun constructions faster, particularly for some items. However, when we controlled for item differences in the L2 and L1 reading data, cross-language effects observed were similar to the original data pattern. Moreover, individual differences in L2 experience modulated both L2 and L1 reading for adjective-noun constructions, consistent with a cross-language activation interpretation of the data. These findings are consistent with the idea of syntactic cross-language activation during reading for some constructions. However, for several reasons, cross-language syntactic activation during comprehension may be overall more variable and challenging to investigate methodologically compared to past work on other forms of cross-language activation (i.e., single words).
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