In these days of mass migration, many people learn a brand new language at a later age. This is not easy: Languages have both similarities and differences in the sentence structures with which they express particular meanings. For instance, the Dutch and French active sentences are similar in both languages (Le chat chasse la souris - De kat jaagt op de muis [The cat cases the mouse]), but Dutch has three different forms for the full passive sentence, whereas French has only one (La souris est chassée par le chat). How do learners deal with this?
This proposal aims to evaluate whether foreign language learners keep the memory representation of syntactic structures in their native language (L1) and second language (L2) separated early in acquisition, in order to avoid transfer errors. Previous research suggests that bilinguals share information about sentence structure across their languages, whenever these structures are similar enough. Hartsuiker and Bernolet (2017) proposed a developmental model for second language syntax in which learners go through several consecutive learning stages before they share syntax between languages: L2 acquisition begins with the learning of item-specific lexical representations which become more abstract with increasing proficiency, with abstraction taking place across words within the L2, and eventually also between languages. The challenging aspect is our goal to test that theory in ecologically valid settings.
All studies in the project use syntactic priming as a tool (Branigan & Pickering, 2017): all sentences that need to be produced or comprehended are preceded by a prime sentence with the same or a competing syntactic structure. If a prime structure is represented in memory, it will influence the production and the comprehension of the upcoming sentence, within and across languages. We will investigate the syntactic representations in different speakers of Dutch: 1) Flemish students with Dutch as their only native language; 2) Arabic-Dutch simultaneous bilinguals; 3) Walloon students who learned Dutch at the age of 10; 4) first generation immigrants learning Dutch as their first or second Indo-European language. The first production study compares groups 1, 2, and 3 and investigates the representation of Dutch syntactic structures that lack a similar counterpart in the learners' native language (Arabic/French); the second study investigates how we can boost the production of Dutch syntactic structures that are dispreferred due to influence of these native languages. We plan to boost the production of these structures by maximizing the lexical overlap between the prime and target sentences and by presenting the different prime structures in a blocked design, thus creating a powerful training context. Studies 3 and 4 are longitudinal studies that explore whether we can we see the different phases of late L2 syntactic development predicted by Hartsuiker & Bernolet (2017) in the learning trajectory for Dutch syntax in native Arabic speakers who learn Dutch as their first or second Indo-European language (group 4). Apart from production tasks, the project will include two structural priming in comprehension tasks, using self-paced reading and eye-tracking.
By documenting the different stages in L2 syntactic development with actual learner data, this project will have a strong impact on both the psychology of language and on second language acquisition research. Additionally, this project will provide valuable information on the learning trajectory for Dutch syntax, with its possible problems, and on the influence of native language syntax on the development and the final representation of Dutch syntax. Hence, the project outcome will be relevant to teachers and trainers of Dutch as a foreign language.