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Speech Perception, Production and Bilingualism
Cognitive Neuroscience of Auditory Perception and Attention
Group of Attention, Action and Perception
Computational and Theoretical Neuroscience
Neuropsychology and Functional Neuroimaging
Grammar and Bilingualism

The grammars of bilinguals

Project coordinator: Itziar Laka.

Project members: Begoña Díaz, Irene de la Cruz-Pavía, Kepa Erdozia, Mari Jose Ezeizabarrena, Maria Pilar García-Mayo, Junkal Gutiérrez, Mikel Santesteban, Nuria Sebastián- Gallés, Iraia Yetano, Adam Zawiszewski


Differences in native vs. non-native language processing are modulated by factors such as age of acquisition, proficiency and language distance, though the relative impact of these factors is still not well understood. The goal of this project is to explore the impact of language distance (morphosyntactic similarities and differences between native and non-native grammars) on bilingual processing. To this end, we compare how L1Basque/L2Spanish bilinguals and L1Spanish/L2Basque highly proficient bilinguals (AoA of L2 3 years) process certain core aspects of syntax and morphology. Basque-Spanish and Spanish-Basque bilingual populations present an ideal environment in which to investigate this issue, given the great typological distance between the two languages (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Typological features.

SUBPROJECT 1: Morphology  in bilinguals: case and agreement. The goal of this subproject is to explore the impact of morphological similarities and differences in L1/L2 on bilingual L2 processing. Basque-Spanish and Spanish-Basque bilingual populations are ideal to investigating this issue: Basque is an ergative-absolutive language with agglutinative morphology, while Spanish is nominative-accusative with flexive morphology. Both languages have subject verb-agreement, but only Basque has object agreement ( Fig.1). We compare how L1 Basque versus L1 Spanish proficient bilinguals process Basque case and agreement morphology. ERPs were registered while participants read grammatical vs. ungrammatical sentences and performed a grammaticality judgment task. The results revealed differences for ergative case processing, but not for verb-agreement. More precisely, the amplitude of the P600 component was significantly higher for the ungrammatical items in the native group than in the non-native one, while verb-agreement violations generated a similar ERP pattern (N400-P600) (see Fig.2). These results are in line with the behavioural scores: non-natives make significantly more errors when performing the grammaticality judgment task in the ergative case condition than in the verb-agreement condition (see Fig.3). Our results indicate that morphological variation has an impact in bilingualism; native and (early proficient) non-native bilingual processing converges in tasks involving aspects of grammar that are equivalent in L1 and L2 (verb agreement), but diverge in tasks involving dissimilar aspects (nominative vs. ergative morphology).


Figure 2.  ERP results for case and agreement violations in L1 and L2 Basque


Figure 3.  ERPs elicited at sentence initial position of each comparison. Verb-final structures showed frontal negativities for Objects (dotted line) comparing to Subjects (solid line) for both groups. Objects of verb medial structures showed positive effects in both native and non-native speakers. 


SUBPROJECT 2. Syntax in bilinguals: Exploring the Head Parameter (SOV/SVO). The sequential arrangement of words in phrases yields two basic language types (SVO/head-initial and SOV/head-final). Language acquisition studies reveal that infants are sensitive to this difference very early in life. This subproject inquires whether the basic word-order pattern of L1 affects the L2 of bilinguals when L1/L2 word-order patterns are different. L1Basque bilinguals have been found to have a strong preference for SOV versus other word-order patterns when tested while reading verb-final (SOV-OSV) and verb-medial (SVO-OVS) sentences; a comparison with highly proficient early L2Basque bilinguals shows native-like processing of this aspect of syntax. The comparison of SOV vs. OSV sentences shows a modulation of anterior negativities and P600 components in OSV for both types of bilinguals. In comparison with SVO sentences, OVS sentences showed a modulation of frontal positivities at S and O positions, and a larger late P600 component at the verb position. Both types of bilinguals displayed a similar ERP pattern (see Figure 1). When reading syntactically ambiguous sentences disambiguated only by means of world-knowledge, the groups of bilinguals showed similar frontal negative effects at sentence final position when the OSV interpretation was required. We used an artificial grammar learning paradigm that can be equally parsed as either head-final or as head-initial. Again, the results showed no significant differences in segmentation preferences in L1 and L2 Basque bilinguals. Our findings indicate that early and proficient bilinguals process word-order patterns alike, suggesting that there is no transfer effect from L1 to L2 regarding this aspect of language. 



  1. Subject-object asymmetries in bilingual processing
  2. Language processing in bilingual aphasia
  3. Bilingualism and L3 learning