Age effects in L2 grammar processing as revealed by ERPs and how (not) to study them

Nienke Meulman, Martijn Wieling, Simone A. Sprenger, Laurie A. Stowe, Monika S. Schmid

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In this study we investigate the effect of age of acquisition (AoA) on grammatical processing in second language learners as measured by event-related brain potentials (ERPs). We compare a traditional analysis involving the calculation of averages across a certain time window of the ERP waveform, analyzed with categorical groups (early vs. late), with a generalized additive modeling analysis, which allows us to take into account the full range of variability in both AoA and time. Sixty-six Slavic advanced learners of German listened to German sentences with correct and incorrect use of non-finite verbs and grammatical gender agreement. We show that the ERP signal depends on the AoA of the learner, as well as on the regularity of the structure under investigation. For gender agreement, a gradual change in processing strategies can be shown that varies by AoA, with younger learners showing a P600 and older learners showing a posterior negativity. For verb agreement, all learners show a P600 effect, irrespective of AoA. Based on their behavioral responses in an offline grammaticality judgment task, we argue that the late learners resort to computationally less efficient processing strategies when confronted with (lexically determined) syntactic constructions different from the L1. In addition, this study highlights the insights the explicit focus on the time course of the ERP signal in our analysis framework can offer compared to the traditional analysis.