Cognate effects in auditory and visual word processing in child and adult beginning L2 learners: Electrophysiological evidence

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

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

Janet G. van Hell, Department of Psychology and Center for Language Science; Pennsylvania State University, USA
Ping Li, Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies, Faculty of Humanities; The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China
Fatemeh Abdollahi, Department of Psychology and Center for Language Science; Pennsylvania State University, USA; Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences; Boston University, USA
Katharine Donnelly Adams, Department of Psychology and Center for Language Science; Pennsylvania State University, USA

A key finding in research on cross-language lexical activation is that both languages are activated during lexical processing, even when bilinguals process words in only one language. A substantial part of this evidence comes from studies showing that cognates (words that share semantics, phonology, and orthography across languages) are processed faster than noncognates (Van Hell & Tanner, 2012). Previous studies typically presented cognates and noncognates visually. Recently, we presented cognates and noncognates in behavioral auditory and visual lexical decision tasks, and observed a cognate facilitation effect in visual but not in auditory lexical decision. This suggests that bilinguals can use language-specific auditory cues to direct processing towards one language only. In two ERP experiments, we examined the neural time course of cross-language activation during visual and auditory lexical processing, and the role of language-specific auditory cues. English adult beginning L2 learners of Spanish read (Experiment 1) or listened to (Experiment 2) cognates and noncognates presented in Spanish or English while performing a go-no go task. Results for visual presentation showed a delayed N400 for the Spanish words, which was more negative-going for noncognates than for cognates. Visual presentation of English words showed a small increased negativity (N400) for noncognates relative to cognates. For auditory presentations, there were no ERP differences between cognates and noncognates in either language. Presenting these materials in visual (Experiment 3) and auditory (Experiment 4) go-no go tasks to child beginning L2 learners of Spanish yielded an enhanced P300 to noncognates relative to cognates for visual presentation in Spanish, but not English. No ERP cognate effects emerged in auditory presentations in either language. These results indicate that mode of presentation (visual or auditory) modulates the co-activation of languages, and that adult and child beginning L2 learners employ phonological cues to constrain lexical access to only one language.