This study examined how acquisition of novel words from an unknown language (L2) is influenced by their orthographic similarity with existing native language (L1) words in beginning adult learners. Participants were tested in a two-alternative forced-choice recognition task and a typing production task as they learned to associate 80 L2 (pseudo)words with pictures depicting their meanings. There was no effect of L1 orthographic neighborhood density on accuracy in the two-alternative forced-choice task, but typing accuracy was higher for L2 words with many L1 neighbors in the earliest stages of learning. ERPs recorded during a language decision task before and after learning also showed differences as a function of L1 neighborhood density. Across sessions, L2 words with many L1 neighbors elicited slower responses and larger N400s than words with fewer L1 neighbors, suggesting that L1 neighbors continued to influence processing of the L2 words after learning (though to a lesser extent). Finally, ERPs recorded during a typing task after learning also revealed an effect of L1 neighborhood that began about 700 msec after picture onset, suggesting that the cross-language neighborhood effects cannot solely be attributed to bottom–up activation of L1 neighbors. Together, these results demonstrate that strategic associations between novel L2 words and existing L1 neighbors scaffold learning and result in interactions among cross-language neighbors, suggestive of an integrated L1–L2 lexicon.

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