Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Learning the syntax of a second language (L2) often represents a big challenge to L2 learners. Previous research on syntactic processing in L2 has mainly focused on how L2 speakers respond to “objective” syntactic violations, that is, phrases that are incorrect by native standards. In this study, we investigate how L2 learners, in particular those of less than near-native proficiency, process phrases that deviate from their own, “subjective,” and often incorrect syntactic representations, that is, whether they use these subjective and idiosyncratic representations during sentence comprehension. We study this within the domain of grammatical gender in a population of German learners of Dutch, for which systematic errors of grammatical gender are well documented. These L2 learners as well as a control group of Dutch native speakers read Dutch sentences containing gender-marked determiner–noun phrases in which gender agreement was either (objectively) correct or incorrect. Furthermore, the noun targets were selected such that, in a high proportion of nouns, objective and subjective correctness would differ for German learners. The ERP results show a syntactic violation effect (P600) for objective gender agreement violations for native, but not for nonnative speakers. However, when the items were re-sorted for the L2 speakers according to subjective correctness (as assessed offline), the P600 effect emerged as well. Thus, rather than being insensitive to violations of gender agreement, L2 speakers are similarly sensitive as native speakers but base their sensitivity on their subjective—sometimes incorrect—representations.