Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences


Loraine K. Obler

Committee Members

Valerie L. Shafer

Eva M. Fernandez

Subject Categories

Cognitive Psychology | First and Second Language Acquisition | Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics


Bilingualism, Syntax, Language, Spanish, ERP


Bilinguals have to learn two different grammatical systems. Some aspects of these grammars may be similar across the two languages (for example, the active-passive alternation) while others may exist in only one of the two grammars (for example, the distinction between recent and distant past). This dissertation investigates the degree to which grammar information specific to only one language is available when processing the other language. In particular, the current study focuses on the application of grammatical structures from the bilinguals’ second-learned language to their first-learned language, a direction of language transfer not often investigated. Based on a Shared Syntax Model of bilingual language representation (Hartsuiker, Pickering, & Veltkamp, 2004), we propose that verb argument structure information associated with verbs in the second language can become associated with the verbs’ translation equivalents in the first language.

Two groups of Spanish-English bilinguals were included: Early Bilinguals were those who learned Spanish first and learned English by age 9 years while Late Bilinguals were those who learned Spanish first and learned English at age 10 years or later. Electrophysiological data was collected in addition to acceptability judgments while participants listened to sentences in Spanish in order to observe whether sentence processing was influenced by second-language knowledge in real-time. Critical Spanish sentences were those that mimic the Causative construction in English (e.g., The rider jumped the horse over the bushes was translated to El jinete brincó al caballo encima de los arbustos), which is not an allowable argument structure configuration for controlled motion verbs in Spanish. Elicited responses from the critical sentences were compared to grammatical control sentences (Transitives) and ungrammatical control sentences (Pseudo-causatives) to determine whether Spanish-English bilinguals are able to use their knowledge of English grammar to interpret Spanish sentences that mimic English Causatives.

Both Early and Late Bilinguals rated Causative sentences higher than ungrammatical control sentences. The Event-Related Potential (ERP) data revealed that Early Bilinguals produced an N400 followed by a P600 for the ungrammatical control sentences but not for the Causative, which showed a Left Anterior Negativity at an earlier time window but otherwise patterned with grammatical control sentences. Late bilinguals showed a Left Anterior Negativity for the ungrammatical control sentences but not for Causative sentences, which again patterned with grammatical control sentences.

In sum, Spanish-English bilinguals showed none of the ERP components for Causative sentences that were found for the ungrammatical control sentences, and only Early Bilinguals exhibited an earlier Left Anterior Negativity, which may indicate the detection of multiple possible argument structures associated with controlled motion verbs or a re-arrangement of thematic roles assigned by the verb at the detection of a Causative argument structure. The fact that the Causative sentences showed ERP patterns similar to grammatical control sentences provides evidence that highly proficient Spanish-English bilinguals can interpret ungrammatical Spanish sentences that are grammatical in English. The absence of any ERP patterns associated with grammaticality violations for the Causative sentences suggests that the bilinguals are not simply “borrowing” the construction from English while listening to sentences in Spanish but rather that the Causative argument structure has become associated with controlled motion verbs in Spanish, facilitating fast application of this construction when comprehending Causative sentences in Spanish. This is the first study, to our knowledge, that shows transfer of second-language syntactic information to first-language syntactic processing in highly proficient bilinguals using an online measure of language processing in the brain (ERPs).