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Electrophysiological Approaches to Understanding Second Language Acquisition: A Field Reaching its Potential

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 December 2014


The present article provides a review of results from electrophysiological studies of the neurocognition of second language. After a brief introduction to event-related potentials (ERPs), the article explores four sets of findings from recent second language (L2) ERP research. First, longitudinal L2 ERP research has demonstrated that L2 neurocognitive processing changes qualitatively with time. Second, research has shown that L2 learners can evidence nativelike ERP effects for L2 grammatical features that are present in their first language (L1) as well as for features that are unique to their L2 but may have more difficulty processing features that are present in their L1 but that are instantiated differently in their L2. Third, emerging research has revealed that individual differences in ERPs can be accounted for by linguistic and nonlinguistic factors. Finally, recent empirical studies have shown that explicit and implicit training contexts can lead to nativelike ERP effects at high levels of proficiency, but that implicit contexts may lead to the development of a fuller nativelike processing signature, at least for syntactic processing. With continued interdisciplinary approaches and sophisticated research designs, L2 ERP research is only beginning to reach its potential and promises to uniquely inform central questions of second language acquisition.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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Gillon Dowens, M., Vergara, M., Barber, H. A., & Carreiras, M. (2010). Morphosyntactic processing in late second-language learners. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 18701887.

This article provides a comprehensive report of gender and number agreement processing in L2 as compared to native speakers. The findings demonstrate the complexity of L2 processing in that learners evidence a fully nativelike response to both number and gender agreement between determiners and nouns but only evidence a partially nativelike response to number and gender agreement between nouns and adjectives. The pattern of findings suggests that research must consider multiple factors (e.g., L1-L2 similarity as well as linguistic structure), in order to obtain a nuanced understanding of L2 neurocognitive processing.

McLaughlin, J., Tanner, D., Pitkänen, I., Frenck-Mestre, C., Inoue, K., Valentine, G., & Osterhout, L. (2010). Brain potentials reveal discrete stages of L2 grammatical learning. Language Learning, 60, 123150.

This report of a series of L2 ERP studies is significant because it provides evidence that the group-averaged ERP signal is not necessarily representative of individual processing and that subgroups of learners who show qualitatively different processing signatures can be identified. In addition, the data reported in this article shows that the same linguistic stimuli can elicit different ERP effects within learners over time. This article is significant in that it serves as an impetus for carrying out longitudinal research and for exploring individual differences within groups of L2 learners.

Steinhauer, K., White, E. J., & Drury, J. E. (2009). Temporal dynamics of late second language acquisition: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Second Language Research, 25, 1341.

This review of L2 ERP research proposes a model of neurocognitive L2 development based on proficiency, with a series of qualitative and quantitative changes in learners’ ERP response to (morpho)syntactic processing. The proposal serves as an impetus for longitudinal L2 ERP research and has important implications for neurocognitive theories of L2 acquisition.


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