Abstract

In contrast to native language acquisition, adult second-language (L2) acquisition occurs under highly variable learning conditions. Although most adults acquire their L2 at least partially through explicit instruction, as in a classroom setting, many others acquire their L2 primarily through implicit exposure, as is typical of an immersion environment. Whether these differences in acquisition environment play a role in determining the neural mechanisms that are ultimately recruited to process L2 grammar has not been well characterized. This study investigated this issue by comparing the ERP response to novel L2 syntactic rules acquired under conditions of implicit exposure and explicit instruction, using a novel laboratory language-learning paradigm. Native speakers tested on these stimuli showed a biphasic response to syntactic violations, consisting of an earlier negativity followed by a later P600 effect. After merely an hour of training, both implicitly and explicitly trained learners who were capable of detecting grammatical violations also elicited P600 effects. In contrast, learners who were unable to discriminate between grammatically correct and incorrect sentences did not show significant P600 effects. The magnitude of the P600 effect was found to correlate with learners' behavioral proficiency. Behavioral measures revealed that successful learners from both the implicit and explicit groups gained explicit, verbalizable knowledge about the L2 grammar rules. Taken together, these results indicate that late, controlled mechanisms indexed by the P600 play a crucial role in processing a late-learned L2 grammar, regardless of training condition. These findings underscore the remarkable plasticity of later, attention-dependent processes and their importance in lifelong learning.

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