Individual differences in chunking ability predict L2 sentence processing: eye-tracking evidence from multiword units and relative clauses

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

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

Manuel F. Pulido, Center for Language Science, Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, The Pennsylvania State University

Recent studies on reading in native speakers have identified a new modulator of sentence processing, namely, chunking ability. Measures of chunking ability index an individual’s sensitivity to statistical regularities in the input (e.g., frequently co-occurring multiword units) and predict the efficiency in integrating and processing “chunks” of discourse online. However, it is still unclear whether measures of chunking ability predict second language (L2) processing, and whether chunking ability should be measured in the L1 or the L2.
In the present study, first, a measure of chunk sensitivity was collected in both of the languages of L1 English-L2 Spanish participants. Next, an eye-tracking reading task was administered to examine participants’ processing of L2 sentences containing target multiword units. Half of the target multiword units were specific to the L2, e.g., pedir una hamburguesa (which literally translates as ‘request a hamburger’ but is equivalent to ‘order a hamburger’). Target multiword units were composed of a verb and a noun; however, sentences included an embedded relative clause in which the verb-noun phrase was reversed, with the critical incongruent verb following the noun (e.g., las hamburguesas que pedirán ‘the hamburgers they will order’).
Mixed-effects models revealed that early measures for processing of the verb (i.e., gaze duration) were modulated by native-language chunking ability, suggesting a role of general language chunking ability in early integration. However, late measures (i.e., total duration) were correlated with L2-specific chunking ability only, indicating language experience-based effects. Furthermore, significant interactions between chunking ability and proficiency revealed an inverse U-shaped pattern, with faster reading times both in learners with the highest and the lowest scores, suggesting fast integration in the former, and lack of integration in the latter. The findings point at chunking ability as an important modulator of L2 processing, and expand our current understanding of reading in non-native speakers.