Abstract

Several event-related potential (ERP) studies in second language (L2) processing have revealed a differential vulnerability of syntax-related ERP effects in contrast to purely semantic ERP effects. However, it is still debated to what extent a potential critical period for L2 acquisition, as opposed to the attained proficiency level in the L2, contributes to the pattern of results reported in previous ERP studies. We studied L2 processing within the model of a miniature version of a natural language, namely Japanese, specifically constructed to assure high proficiency of the learners. In an auditory ERP experiment, we investigated sentence processing of the “Mini-Japanese” in Japanese native speakers and German volunteers before and after training. By making use of three different types of violation, namely, word category, case, and classifier violations, native and nonnative ERP patterns were compared. The three types of violation elicited three characteristic ERP patterns in Japanese native speakers. The word category violation elicited an anteriorly focused, broadly distributed early negativity followed by a P600, whereas the case violation evoked a P600 which was preceded by an N400. The classifier violation led solely to a late left distributed negativity with an anterior focus. Although the P600 was similar for Japanese natives and learners, the N400 and the anterior negativities were not present in the learner group. The differences across groups suggest deviant neural processes in on-line syntactic and thematic processing in the L2 learners despite high behavioral skills.

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