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Auteur: Nuria SAGARRA

Proficiency and sentential position effects on L1 transfer

Abstract/Résumé: Processing a foreign language as an adult is cognitively demanding, and working memory limitations force learners to process L2 input selectively. Most languages can mark temporal reference lexically (temporal adverbs) and morphologically (verbal inflections). We investigate associative learning explanations of adults’ persistent difficulty processing L2 inflectional morphology involving cue salience and the blocking of later experienced cues by earlier learned ones. Sagarra (2008), and Sagarra and Ellis (2010) found that intermediate but not beginning English-Spanish learners are sensitive to adverb-verb incongruencies, and that, unlike Spanish monolinguals, the learners rely more on salient adverbs than less salient verb inflections. However, it is not clear whether this preference is a result of a default or an L1-based strategy. To address this question, 128 English (poor morphology) and Romanian (rich morphology) intermediate and advanced learners of Spanish (rich morphology) and 108 English, Romanian and Spanish monolinguals read sentences in L2 Spanish (or their L1 for the controls) containing adverb-verb or verb-adverb congruencies/incongruencies, and chose one of four pictures after each sentence (two competing for meaning and two for form). Eye-tracking data revealed significant effects for Incongruency (all participants were sensitive to tense incongruencies), Cue Position (all participants looked at verbs and adverbs longer when they appeared in second position in incorrect sentences), L1 (native speakers of morphologically rich languages tended to looked longer at verbs and regressed longer to verbs than native speakers of morphologically impoverished languages; this applies to both the monolingual and the learner groups), and Proficiency (intermediate learners read more slowly and regressed longer than advanced learners). Taking together the findings of this study and of Sagarra and Ellis (2010), we conclude that beginning learners rely so heavily on adverbs that they are insensitive to tense incongruencies or language experience effects; however, intermediate and advanced learners are sensitive to tense incongruencies and, like monolinguals, tend to rely more heavily on verbs if their L1 is morphologically rich. Grammaticality judgment data complements these findings. These findings inform linguistic and cognitive models of second language acquisition and suggest that is learners start with the least effortful interpretation and later on recur to L1 transfer.