ERPs were used to explore the different patterns of processing of cognate and noncognate words in the first (L1) and second (L2) language of a population of second language learners. L1 English students of French were presented with blocked lists of L1 and L2 words, and ERPs to cognates and noncognates were compared within each language block. For both languages, cognates had smaller amplitudes in the N400 component when compared with noncognates. L1 items that were cognates showed early differences in amplitude in the N400 epoch when compared with noncognates. L2 items showed later differences between cognates and noncognates than L1 items. The results are discussed in terms of how cognate status affects word recognition in second language learners.

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