ISCA Workshop on Plasticity in Speech Perception (PSP2005)

Senate House, London, UK
June 15-17, 2005

Generalization of Language Rules: Syntactic and Thematic Processing of Unfamiliar Words

Jutta Mueller, Angela D. Friederici

MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany

Event-related potentials (ERPs) provide reliable measures of specific processes involved in native language comprehension, such as syntactic and semantic analysis of sentences. ERP responses of late second language (L2) learners were shown to differ from those of natives specifically in the syntactic domain (Weber-Fox & Neville, 1996). Recently, some ERP experiments simulated L2 processing in the model of miniature languages. The observed ERPs were remarkably similar to those observed in native speakers (Friederici, Steinhauer & Pfeifer, 2002; Mueller, Hahne, Fujii & Friederici, in press). The studies suggest that some native-like ERP responses emerge already after a short period of training if high behavioural skills are assured. The present experiment tested if learners of a miniature language can generalize the acquired sentence processing mechanisms to new lexical items.

We conducted an ERP experiment with German participants who had previously learned the miniature language Mini-Nihongo, which is a subset of natural Japanese. Participants were presented correct sentences of Mini-Nihongo and sentences which contained either word category or case violations. Half of the sentences contained only familiar words, the other half included an unfamiliar word. Unfamiliar words occurred at the position which was critical for the violation detection.

Case violations, which were indicated by incorrect morphological case markers, elicited an N400-P600 pattern in familiar-word sentences. The N400 was interpreted as reflecting difficulties in the thematic ordering of the arguments while the P600 was seen as indication of controlled syntactic processes of repair. In unfamiliar-word sentences only the P600 was observed. Thus, the lexical difficulties affected thematic processes while controlled syntactic repair processes were unimpaired.

Word category violations, which were indicated by a verb (morphologically unmarked) in a position in which only nouns (morphologically marked) were licensed, elicited an early negativity and a P600 in familiar-word sentences. The early negativity was related to the unexpected prosody of incorrect sentences and the P600 to processes of syntactic repair. In unfamiliar-word sentences only the early negativity was present, suggesting that prosody is processed irrespective of the presence of lexical information. The absence of the P600 effect could result from an enhanced P600 for the correct condition.

The differences between familiar and unfamiliar-word sentences suggest differential sensitivities of the different ERP components with respect to the accessability of lexical information. The P600 difference between the case and the word category violation condition may result from differences in the morphological markedness of the critical words.


Bibliographic reference.  Mueller, Jutta / Friederici, Angela D. (2005): "Generalization of language rules: syntactic and thematic processing of unfamiliar words", In PSP2005, 132.