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Visual word recognition in a second language: A test of the lexical entrenchment hypothesis with lexical decision times



The word frequency effect is stronger in second language (L2) processing than in first language (L1) processing. According to the lexical entrenchment hypothesis, this difference is not due to a qualitative difference in word processing between L1 and L2, but can be explained by differences in exposure to the target language: People with less exposure to a language show a steeper frequency curve for that language. Exposure differences can be measured with a vocabulary test. The present study tested whether the lexical entrenchment hypothesis provides an adequate explanation for differences in lexical decision times. To this end, we compared the performance of 56 Dutch–English bilinguals to that of 1011 English L1 speakers on 420 English six-letter words. In line with previous research, the differences in the word frequency effect between word processing in L1 and in L2 became vanishingly small once vocabulary size was entered as a predictor. Only in a diffusion model analysis did we find some evidence that the information build-up may be slower in L1 than in L2, independent of vocabulary size. We further report effects of cognates, age-of-acquisition, and neighborhood size that can also be explained in terms of differences in exposure.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Marc Brysbaert, Department of Experimental Psychology, Ghent University, Henri Dunantlaan 2, B-9000 Gent, Belgium,


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Visual word recognition in a second language: A test of the lexical entrenchment hypothesis with lexical decision times



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