Can Typologically different L1 grammar modulate L2 oral language production: Evidence from Hebrew-speakers narrative in English as a foreign language

Thematic Section: Modulators of cross-language influences in learning and processing

cross-language influence, transfer, immersion, morpho-syntax, lexicon

Susie Russak, Beit Berl College, Israel
Elena Zaretsky, Clark University, USA

English is widely spoken as an additional language in the world today (Eberhard, Simons, & Fennig, 2020). This has led to increased demand for high-quality English oral language skills. Yet, research on the specific cognitive and linguistic processes that may mitigate acquisition of solid oral skills in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) (Derakhshan, Khalili & Beheshti, 2016) are sorely lacking.
Existing research suggests that typological proximity between L1 and L2, as well as L1 proficiency, positively impact L2 acquisition (Angelis, 2007; Cummins, 2014). More recent research in cognitive neuropsychology provides evidence that both languages, regardless of their typological proximity are simultaneously active in the minds of bilingual individuals (Kroll & Gollan, 2014; DeGroot, 2016; Putnam et al., 2018), therefore suggesting the existence of mitigating factors and processes that may actively promote L2 acquisition.
In the present study, 86 (60 M) L1 Hebrew-speaking 6th graders in their 4th year of learning EFL were assessed on cognitive skills (e.g., Raven’s colored progressive matrices, phonological working memory), L1 lexical and morphosyntactic knowledge, and reading comprehension. Similar skills were also assessed in EFL. In addition, the “Cookie Theft” task (Goodglass & Kaplan, 1983) served as a measure of elicited oral EFL narratives.
Results indicated strong associations between L2 grammatical knowledge, reading comprehension, and quality of EFL narrative production (range: p=.000-.004). Hebrew morphology showed a strong effect on Total Narrative score (p=.024), and a trend toward significance on the microstructure (p=.050), effectively seen as a mitigating factor in constructing narrative.
In short, our results suggest that, despite the typological distance between Hebrew and English, L1 and L2 grammatical knowledge exists concurrently among Hebrew-English bilinguals. Dual activation from both source grammars, when engaged in L2 oral language production, facilitates more complete L2 narratives on micro- and macro levels, with benefits from strong L1 grammatical knowledge.