Processing of English compounds by Basque-Spanish bilinguals: The role of dominance

2012

Abstract  Word-formation processes vary greatly among languages, although those which are typologically close tend to cluster around particular configurations which may or may not differ from those of other linguistic families. The case of compound words in Romance and Germanic languages has received a considerable amount of attention from both theoretical linguists (Contreras, 1985; Yoon, 2009) and acquisitionists (Liceras & Díaz, 2000; Slabakova, 2002; García Mayo, 2006), with the second focusing more on the interplay between two or more systems in a multilingual setting. The case of deverbal N+N compounds (e.g. can opener) in English as compared to their V+N Spanish semantic equivalents (e.g. abrelatas ‘can opener’, lit. ‘opens-cans’) is particularly interesting. What seems apparent is that Spanish and English do not lexicalise verb-noun relationships in the same way. Basque, on the other hand, does seem to have direct parallels with English: Basque deverbal compounds are also right-headed N+N constructions, in which the deverbal head has been nominalised through affixation (e.g. kontu kontalaria, lit. ‘story teller’). In light of these facts, are there any facilitatory effects in processing for those bilinguals whose L1 is similar to the L3 in the formation of deverbal compounds? We carried out an experiment in which we controlled for both language profile and proficiency. Sixty-six participants belonging to one of three language groups (L1-Spanish monolinguals, L1Basque-L2Spanish bilinguals and L1Spanish-L2Basque bilinguals) were assigned to one of three levels of proficiency in English (high, medium or low) based on their scores on the standardised Oxford Placement Test, and further tested in a lexical decision task, where they were asked to respond whether the items appearing on screen were actual English words. For the critical condition, 42 high-frequency English compounds and 42 pseudo-compounds (non-words) were used. The design was completed with 168 fillers: 84 non-compound words and 84 non-words. We predicted practically equal accuracy rates for all groups at comparable levels of proficiency, since the effect is not expected to override lexical knowledge; a faster performance of the monolingual group, due to an attested higher processing cost in bilinguals (Costa, 2005); and shorter response latencies for the Basque-dominant bilinguals as opposed to their Spanish-dominant counterparts, since the critical structure is hypothesised to be more readily available for the former group. Results have largely matched our predictions: two-way ANOVAs performed on the data indicated no significant effect of the participants’ linguistic profile on their accuracy rates, a factor which was however significantly influential when it came to their response latencies to the critical conditions. That is, while all participants, irrespective of language group, performed equally well when compared to their proficiency-matched counterparts, Basque-dominant bilinguals were significantly faster at processing English deverbal compounds than their Spanish-dominant peers. These results will be considered in light of models of L3 transfer, for which they might have important implications.


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