Effects of lexical and syntactic congruency in L2 predictive gender processing

Hopp, H. 1 & Lemmerth, N. 2

1 University of Braunschweig
2 University of Mannheim

Adult L2 learners show persistent difficulties in processing grammatical gender, especially if the L1 lacks gender (English). However, even learners whose L1s have gender do not invariably use L2 gender to predict referents on-line ('laFEM' -> 'casaFEM').

To refine the scope of L1 effects, we test how lexical and syntactic differences between L1/2 gender affect L2 German gender processing by L1 Russians. Both languages have three genders. They differ in lexical congruency in gender assignment of nouns (tableMASC-MASC vs houseNEUT-MASC). Further, gender is syntactically marked on prenominal determiners in German but on postnominal suffixes in Russian. On adjectives, both mark gender on suffixes.

In visual-world eye-tracking, 24 L1 Russian L2 learners were tested alongside 15 Germans as they listened to questions (?Where is [DET] [ADJ] [Noun]??). We crossed the factors lexical congruency (congruent vs incongruent) and syntactic congruency (adjective vs determiner marking). Mixed effect models show interactions of L1, proficiency and congruency. Like natives, high-proficiency L2ers use L2 gender predictively in all conditions. Intermediate L2ers show general gender prediction with (syntactically congruent) adjectives, yet for (syntactically incongruent) determiners only with lexically congruent nouns. We discuss how lexical and syntactic properties of the L1 interact in L2 gender and sentence processing.