Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Electrophysiological studies consistently find N400 effects of semantic incongruity in nonnative (L2) language comprehension. These N400 effects are often delayed compared with native (L1) comprehension, suggesting that semantic integration in one's second language occurs later than in one's first language. In this study, we investigated whether such a delay could be attributed to (1) intralingual lexical competition and/or (2) interlingual lexical competition. We recorded EEG from Dutch–English bilinguals who listened to English (L2) sentences in which the sentence-final word was (a) semantically fitting and (b) semantically incongruent or semantically incongruent but initially congruent due to sharing initial phonemes with (c) the most probable sentence completion within the L2 or (d) the L1 translation equivalent of the most probable sentence completion. We found an N400 effect in each of the semantically incongruent conditions. This N400 effect was significantly delayed to L2 words but not to L1 translation equivalents that were initially congruent with the sentence context. Taken together, these findings firstly demonstrate that semantic integration in nonnative listening can start based on word initial phonemes (i.e., before a single lexical candidate could have been selected based on the input) and secondly suggest that spuriously elicited L1 lexical candidates are not available for semantic integration in L2 speech comprehension.