Specific Referential Contexts Shape Efficiency in Second Language Processing: Three Eye-Tracking Experiments with 6- and 10-Year-Old Children in Spanish Immersion Schools

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Abstract

Efficiency in real-time language processing generally poses a greater challenge to adults learning a second language (L2) than to children learning a first language (L1). A notoriously difficult aspect of language for L2 learners to master is grammatical gender, and previous research has shown that L2 learners do not exploit cues to grammatical gender in ways that resemble L1 speakers. But it is not clear whether this problem is restricted to grammatical gender or whether it reflects a broader difficulty with processing local relations between words. Moreover, we do not know if immersive L2 environments, relative to typical L2 classrooms, confer advantages in learning regularities between words. In three eye-tracking experiments, 6- and 10-year-old children who were enrolled in Spanish immersion elementary schools listened to sentences with articles that conveyed information about the grammatical gender (Experiment 1), biological gender (Experiment 2), and number of referents in the visual field (Experiment 3). L1 children used articles to guide their attention to target referents in all three experiments. L2 children did not take advantage of articles as cues to grammatical gender, but succeeded in doing so for biological gender and number. Interpretations of these findings focus on how learning experiences interact with the nature of specific referential contexts to shape learners' efficiency in language processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)128-147
Number of pages20
JournalAnnual Review of Applied Linguistics
Volume37
DOIs
StatePublished - 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

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