We investigated the influence of English proficiency on ERPs elicited by lexical semantic violations in English sentences, in both native English speakers and native Spanish speakers who learned English in adulthood. All participants were administered a standardized test of English proficiency, and data were analyzed using linear mixed effects (LME) modeling. Relative to native learners, late learners showed reduced amplitude and delayed onset of the N400 component associated with reading semantic violations. As well, after the N400 late learners showed reduced anterior negative scalp potentials and increased posterior potentials. In both native and late learners, N400 amplitudes to semantically appropriate words were larger for people with lower English proficiency. N400 amplitudes to semantic violations, however, were not influenced by proficiency. Although both N400 onset latency and the late ERP effects differed between L1 and L2 learners, neither correlated with proficiency. Different approaches to dealing with the high degree of correlation between proficiency and native/late learner group status are discussed in the context of LME modeling. The results thus indicate that proficiency can modulate ERP effects in both L1 and L2 learners, and for some measures (in this case, N400 amplitude), L1–L2 differences may be entirely accounted for by proficiency. On the other hand, not all effects of L2 learning can be attributed to proficiency. Rather, the differences in N400 onset and the post-N400 violation effects appear to reflect fundamental differences in L1–L2 processing.
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