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Neurophysiological indices of morphosyntactic processing in native speakers and bilinguals

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Deviations from an habituated auditory stimulus produce a heightened response in the brain which can be measured with electrical (EEG) or magnetic (MEG) neuroimaging techniques. In recent years it has been demonstrated by a number of studies that this brain response can be used to study higher linguistic processes, including syntax. The great strength of this technique is that the brain response to items in different syntactic contexts is evident less than 1/5 of a second after stimulus, and seems not to require the subject to attend to the stimuli, thus allowing scrutiny of automatic, even unconscious syntactic processes.

We have replicated the results of previous studies on a group of native English speakers in a MEG experiment examining subject-verb agreement violations, and are now applying the same experiment to Chinese speakers of English as a second language of varying proficiencies. We determined proficiency with a series of behavioural tasks designed specifically to test both automatic processing and metalinguistic knowledge of local dependencies between verbs and their subjects in English. Some bilinguals were able to show more native-like patterns of performance than others, and these subjects also scored higher on external measures of proficiency, including a standardised grammar test. However, the critical question is whether native-like brain responses will also be obtained. Preliminary findings from the bilinguals’ MEG results will be presented.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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