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Processing focus in native and non-native speakers of English: an eye-tracking study in the visual world paradigm

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 June 2021

Haoyan Ge*
School of Education and Languages, The Open University of Hong Kong, Hong KongSAR, China
Iris Mulders
Department of Languages, Literature and Communication & Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Xin Kang
Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages & Brain and Mind Institute, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong KongSAR, China
Aoju Chen
Department of Languages, Literature and Communication & Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Virginia Yip
Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong KongSAR, China
*Corresponding author. Email:


This “visual-world” eye-tracking study investigated the processing of focus in English sentences with preverbal only by L2 learners whose L1 was either Cantonese or Dutch, compared to native speakers of English. Participants heard only-sentences with prosodic prominence either on the object or on the verb and viewed pictures containing an object-focus alternative and a verb-focus alternative. We found that both L2 groups showed delayed eye movements to the alternative of focus, which was different from the native speakers of English. Moreover, Dutch learners of English were even slower than Cantonese learners of English in directing fixations to the alternative of focus. We interpreted the delayed fixation patterns in both L2 groups as evidence of difficulties in integrating multiple interfaces in real time. Furthermore, the similarity between English and Dutch in the use of prosody to mark focus hindered Dutch learners’ L2 processing of focus, whereas the difference between English and Cantonese in the realization of focus facilitated Cantonese learners’ processing of focus in English.

Original Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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