Accessing word meaning in two languages: An event-related brain potential study of beginning bilinguals


  • Alvarez Rp
  • Holcomb Pj
  • Grainger J

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Twenty-eight native-English speakers enrolled in beginning and intermediate university Spanish courses participated in a mixed language semantic categorization task in which critical words were presented in English (L1) and Spanish (L2) and repetitions of these words (within- and between-languages) were presented on subsequent trials (i.e., immediate repetition). Event-related potentials were recorded to all items allowing for comparisons of the N400 component to repetitions within- and between-languages as well as to words presented for the first time. Three important findings were observed in this sample of participants during relatively early stages of acquiring a second language. First, in the typical N400 window (300-500 ms), between-language repetition (translation) produced a smaller reduction in N400 amplitude than did within-language repetition. Second, the time-course of between-language repetition effects tended to be more extended in time and differed as a function of language with L2-L1 repetitions producing larger priming effects early (during the typical N400 window) and L1-L2 repetitions producing larger priming effects later (during windows after the typical N400). Third, a greater negativity in the ERP waveforms was observed when the word on the directly preceding trial was from the other language. Within the time frame of the N400, this language switch effect arose only when the target word was Spanish and the preceding word English (i.e., L1-L2). The results are discussed within the framework of current models of bilingual lexical processing. (C) 2003 Elsevier Science (USA). All rights reserved.

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