Syntactic focus structure processing : behavioral and electrophysiological evidence from L1 and L2 French

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Reichle, Robert Vincent

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This dissertation presents results from three experiments to address two research questions: What do the acquisition and processing of information structure tell us about the acquisition and processing of language in general, and what do the acquisition and processing of information structure tell us about the nature of information structure as a syntactic and pragmatic phenomenon? The first two experiments were behavioral studies of native and L2 speakers of French in which subjects made acceptability judgments of sentences containing felicitous or infelicitous information structure. In Experiment 1, there was evidence of a postmaturational effect of age of arrival on judgment task scores; the geometry of this age effect did not show evidence of leveling off over time, contrary to the predictions of some formulations of the critical period hypothesis for second language acquisition (e.g. Newport, 1990; cf. Birdsong & Molis, 2001). The results of this experiment are interpreted as evidence against the presence of a critical period for the acquisition of information structure in a second language. In Experiment 2, L2 learners in low- and high-proficiency groups performed a similar judgment task. Low-proficiency L2 learners exhibited lower scores on the information structure anomaly judgment task than did high-proficiency L2 learners and L1 speakers. The behavioral results from this experiment, in conjunction with electrophysiological data from Experiment 3, suggest that many subjects judged the target sentences based on truth value, rather than information structure. In Experiment 3, subjects were presented with sentences containing felicitous and infelicitous information structure while a 14-channel electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded. Results from this experiment suggest the presence of an N400 and P600 effect indexed with the processing of information structure anomalies in native-speaking subjects. L2 subjects of both high- and low-proficiency also exhibited a late positivity; however, results for the two groups diverged in the earlier time window, suggesting that high-proficiency speakers exhibit a P600 but low-proficiency speakers exhibit a P3 effect reflecting the processing of oddball stimuli. Taken together, the results from these experiments suggest that L2 speakers can acquire aspects of information structure processing to a nativelike degree.