Using morphosyntactic information in predictive L2 sentence processing: Insights from a visual-world eye-tracking study of German verb morphology

Koch, E. M. (Speaker), Housen, A. (Contributor), Godfroid, A. (Contributor), Bulté, B. (Contributor)

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


In sentence comprehension, native speakers constantly integrate lexical, morphosyntactic, pragmatic and contextual information to interpret what is being said and to predict upcoming input (Altmann & Kamide, 1999; Huettig, Rommers, & Meyer, 2011; Tanenhaus et al., 1995). The formation of predictions facilitates efficient communication (Kutas, DeLong, & Smith, 2011). Adult second language (L2) learners, however, have been shown to have difficulty exploiting grammatical cues to generate such predictions (Kaan, 2014). Using visual-world eye-tracking (Huettig et al., 2011), Hopp (2013, 2015) found that L2 learners of German did not use gender marking on articles and adjectives for predictive processing, possibly because they were relying more on lexical-semantic information. Our study further investigates the issue of L2 morphosyntactic prediction by testing whether adult learners of German can use the grammatical information encoded by German verb inflection to anticipate upcoming input during real-time listening. Specifically, we investigate the ability to exploit syntactic number information, as contained in the German present tense verb form, to predict whether the upcoming referent will be singular or plural. We examine both productive (regular verb conjugation, providing morphosyntactic information through affixation) and unproductive German verb morphology (strong verb conjugation, using stem-vowel alternations in addition to affixation). The data of 20 advanced L2 learners of German are compared to those of 20 native speakers in a visual-world eye-tracking experiment. In each trial, the participants are exposed to two pictures, varying in the number of referents depicted (singular vs. plural), combined with oral sentences in which the suffix or stem-vowel of the verb represents the first cue for referent number. All sentences are questions, as these require inversion, placing the verb before the subject. Successful exploitation of the morphosyntactic number cue is measured as anticipatory eye-movements towards the correct picture, before onset of the referent noun. In addition to the eye-tracking experiment, we assess the participants’ explicit knowledge of German verb inflection by means of an oral production task, requiring the participants to conjugate the verbs and to state how confident they are about the correctness of their productions. The findings may shed light on the extent to which L2 speakers are able to exploit (un)productive morphological features during real-time auditory sentence comprehension, and they may help to identify processing differences between L2 learners and native speakers. By comparing the eye-tracking results to the participants’ explicit knowledge, it may be possible to distinguish between the presence of knowledge and its actual usage in comprehension. We also discuss how this method can be implemented in combination with learning treatments, as well as measures of implicit knowledge. Altmann, G. T. M., & Kamide, Y. (1999). Incremental interpretation at verbs: Restricting the domain of subsequent reference. Cognition, 73, 247-264. Hopp, H. (2013). Grammatical gender in adult L2 acquisition: Relations between lexical and syntactic variability. Second Language Research, 29, 33-56. Hopp, H. (2015). Semantics and morphosyntax in predictive L2 sentence processing. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 53, 277-306. Huettig, F., Rommers, R., & Meyer, A. S. (2011). Using the visual world paradigm to study language processing: A review and critical evaluation. Acta Psychologica, 137(2), 151-171. Kaan, E. (2014). Predictive sentence processing in L2 and L1: What is different? Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 4(2), 257-282. Kutas, M., DeLong, K. A., & Smith, N. J. (2011). A look around at what lies ahead: Prediction and predictability in language processing. In M. Bar (Ed.), Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future (pp. 190–207). Tanenhaus, M. K., Spivey-Knowlton, M. J., Eberhard, K. M., & Sedivy, J. C. (1995). Integration of visual and linguistic information in spoken language comprehension. Science, 268(5217), 1632–1634.
Period30 Aug 2019
Event titleEuropean Second Language Association
Event typeConference
Conference number29
LocationLund, Sweden