Laurel Schenkoske Abstracts

Laurel Schenkoske

Ph.D. Candidate

Second Language Acquisition & Teaching GIDP

 

10th Annual Meeting of the Illinois Language and Linguistics Society

Champaign, Illinois

April 6-8th, 2018

 

Few sentence processing models grant (nearly) equal importance to both syntactic and semantic information. Yet according to Ferreira, Christianson, and Colleagues (e.g., Christianson, et al., 2001; Ferreira, 2003), and to Bever and Townsend (Townsend & Bever, 2001; Bever, 2017), language-specific structures and conceptual heuristics in long-term memory both play an important role in how we process the sentences encounter.

Word order is one important heuristic cue for native speakers of English; the frequent NVN-"canonical template" (Townsend & Bever, 2001) suggests to the comprehender that the Agent role match the Subject (N1), and the Patient match the Object (N2). While generally a useful processing strategy, it can also lead to illicit interpretations when thematic roles do not fit expected syntactic functions. Misanalyses are even more frequent when the unexpected word-order pattern is coupled with an implausible meaning, such as in "The dog was bitten by the man" (Ferreira 2003).

If the conceptual interpretation fits an existing schema, the processor may not consult the structure, and a misinterpretation may result. On such misinterpretations, processing may be impaired. Or − the error may simply go unnoticed. The faster semantic processing route may then lead to a "shallow" interpretation, lacking hierarchical detail. As long as enough is comprehended for partial, global understanding, the (mis)analysis may still be “good enough”.

Good Enough structural processing (Ferreira & Henderson, 1999) has been extensively studied in native English speakers. The pilot study here is concerned with whether Chinese speakers of English come to develop the English-like word-order processing strategy, over time and with immersion experience. The pilot partially replicates Ferreira's (2003) word-order studies of thematic role assignment in canonically versus non-canonically ordered sentences. It further examines the interaction of word order with plausibility, i.e., how believable the proposition is based on the comprehender's existing conceptual representations. Table 1 provides a basic paradigm of the sentence conditions.

Three participant groups, made up mostly of undergraduate and graduate university students, consist of 1) native speakers of English, 2) native speakers of Chinese with “intermediate” L2 English, and 3) native speakers of Chinese with “advanced” L2 English. Processing constraints on the three groups are compared.

 Lower-proficiency English learners were not expected to use the English word-order strategy, as word order does not seem to be a very reliable processing cue in the Chinese language (Li, 1998). More crucially, however, is that the Chinese speakers who have been immersed and using English longer tend toward a more English-like word-order strategy. For this group, emerging data are painting a picture of less accurate and slower processing of the non-canonical sentence types − a pattern which follows that of native English speakers. This suggests that, as L2 proficiency advances, the processing of English sentences in Chinese speakers becomes more automatic and native-like.

With further investigation, first with Chinese, and later with different language backgrounds, these preliminary findings may be generalizable to non-native English learners. Implications could impact the teaching and policy of international students at American schools and universities.
 

Abstract for Lay Audience

When we hear or see a sentence, our reactions are generally quite automatic; rarely do we consciously think about the mental processes that occur. Yet, how sentences get interpreted is actually quite complex. Human minds include a mental component called the "sentence processor." It works by quickly consulting conceptual representations and heuristics, and − somewhat less quickly − properties of the language itself, (e.g., Ferreira, 2003; Townsend & Bever, 2001; Bever, 2017).

One important cue for native English speakers is word order (Bates & MacWhinney, 1982). Because the most common pattern is Noun-Verb-Noun (Townsend & Bever, 2001), a processing strategy is to understand the DOER role as the grammatical subject, and the ACTED-ON role as the grammatical object ('The dog bit John'). As this is a heuristic strategy, it usually helps speakers understand sentences quickly.

However, the grammar does not always fit this expected pattern and role assignments can be exchanged. In 'John was bitten by the dog,' the dog is still the DOER, but no longer the subject; John is still the ACTED-ON, and is now the subject. Even more misleading to the processor, unexpected order may be coupled with unexpected meaning, as in "The dog was bitten by the man" (Ferreira 2003).

If the conceptual interpretation fits an existing schema and reaches global understanding, the processor may not consult the actual structure, and a misinterpretation may result. Good Enough sentence processing (Ferreira & Henderson, 1999) has been extensively studied in native English speakers.

The pilot study here partially replicates Ferreira's (2003) studies, while bringing her framework into Second-Language Acquisition. As opposed to English, word order is not a very reliable cue in Chinese (Li, 1998). This research is concerned with whether, when, and under what circumstances, Chinese speakers of English come to develop the English-like processing strategy. 

Two participant groups of native Chinese speakers, made up of undergraduate and graduate university students, consist of speakers with “intermediate” English, and with “native-like" English. Processing constraints on the two groups are compared to each other, and to Ferreira's native English speaker group (2003).

 The lower-proficiency English learners were not expected to use the English word-order strategy. However, the Chinese speakers who have been immersed and using English longer tended toward more English-like processing stategies. For this group, emerging data are painting a picture of less accurate and slower processing of the non-canonical sentence types − a pattern which follows that of native English speakers. This suggests that, as L2 proficiency advances, the processing of English sentences in Chinese speakers becomes more automatic and native-like. Less advanced speakers seem more susceptible to noticing natural "errors" in the input, while more advanced speakers seem more likely to ignore English-language misinterpretations, making communication more natural.

With further investigation, these preliminary findings may be generalizable. Implications could impact the teaching and policy of international students at American schools and universities.

Last updated 5 Jun 2019