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Bilingual and monolingual adults learning an additional language: ERPs reveal differences in syntactic processing


It has been suggested that bilinguals learn additional languages ‘better’ than monolinguals. However, evidence is sparse, particularly for grammar. We examined behavioral and neural correlates of learning an additional (artificial) language in early Mandarin–English bilinguals, compared to English monolinguals. Following grammar instruction, participants practiced comprehension and production, and judged grammaticality at low and high proficiency while event-related potentials (ERPs) were acquired. Bilinguals and monolinguals did not differ on behavioral measures, but showed distinct ERP patterns. At low proficiency only bilinguals showed a P600, a common ERP correlate of syntactic processing in native speakers of languages. At high proficiency both groups showed P600s, though the monolinguals also evidenced an anterior positivity not typically found in native speakers of languages during syntactic processing. These findings suggest that, even without bilingual/monolingual behavioral differences, bilinguals show ERP patterns for an additional language that are more similar to those of native speakers of languages.

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Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Sarah Grey, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Faber Hall 556, Fordham University, Bronx, NY
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* This research was supported by NSF-BCS 1124144 to Sarah Grey, Cristina Sanz, and Michael T. Ullman and a Language Learning journal dissertation grant to Sarah Grey. Portions of this research were presented at the annual meetings of the American Association for Applied Linguistics and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in 2014. We thank three anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback. We especially thank Janire Zalbidea for assistance with data collection for the bilingual group.

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