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Language distance and non-native syntactic processing: Evidence from event-related potentials*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 November 2010

Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies, University of the Basque Country
Center for Mind and Brain, University of California Davis
Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies, University of the Basque Country
Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies, University of the Basque Country
Address for correspondence: Adam Zawiszewski, University of the Basque Country, Elebilab-Psycholinguistics Laboratory, Calle Tomas y Valiente, s/n 01006 Vitoria-Gasteiz,


In this study, we explore native and non-native syntactic processing, paying special attention to the language distance factor. To this end, we compared how native speakers of Basque and highly proficient non-native speakers of Basque who are native speakers of Spanish process certain core aspects of Basque syntax. Our results suggest that differences in native versus non-native language processing strongly correlate with language distance: native/non-native processing differences obtain if a syntactic parameter of the non-native grammar diverges from the native grammar. Otherwise, non-native processing will approximate native processing as levels of proficiency increase. We focus on three syntactic parameters: (i) the head parameter, (ii) argument alignment (ergative/accusative), and (iii) verb agreement. The first two diverge in Basque and Spanish, but the third is the same in both languages. Our results reveal that native and non-native processing differs for the diverging syntactic parameters, but not for the convergent one. These findings indicate that language distance has a significant impact in non-native language processing.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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This research was partially supported by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science (BRAINGLOT CSD2007-00012/CONSOLIDER-INGENIO 2010, FFI2009-09695/FILO, FFI2008-00240/FILO, FFI2010-20472/FILO), Basque Government (IT414-10), University of the Basque Country (GIU09/44) and the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-07-CORP-033). We are also grateful to Kepa Erdozia and Begoña Díaz for their valuable help during data acquisition.


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