Language Development and Disorders (LDD): research projects

Research studies

Bilinguals' access to L1 in L2 comprehension


Bilinguals are an ever-increasing part of the population and yet we still know
relatively little about how they understand and produce language differently from
monolinguals. How does the bilingual language experience affect
comprehension? To what extent are both languages always active, and how does
potential co-activation shape language processing? We know that both languages
are active to some extent when bilinguals understand and produce single words,
but we have limited information beyond the single word level, i.e. when it comes to
more complex constructions in sentences.

This project will investigate whether the interpretation of English sentences
containing a possessive construction (e.g. his daughter/his son) is affected by the
co-activation of morphological and syntactic information in the other language of
Italian-English and Spanish-English adult bilinguals. The cross-linguistic
differences between these three languages will allow us to test whether language
experience shapes the processing strategies of bilinguals differently from
monolinguals beyond single words.

Duration of the project

April 2014-March 2015

Funding body

The British Academy

Members of the project

Dr Andrew StewartCo-investigator
Nadiia DenhovskaResearch assistant

Research on linguistic representation in bilinguals has mostly focused on the
conceptual and lexical levels and there has been relatively little work on syntactic
representations. The evidence at word-level indicates that in fluent bilinguals both
languages are co-activated to some degree, but it is not yet clear whether
morphological and syntactic information is also co-activated in sentence-level

In this study we investigate the co-activation of morphological and syntactic
information in possessive constructions in third person singular contexts (e.g. his
son/his daughter) in adult bilingual speakers of English with Italian or Spanish as
their other language. Our aim is to make a new contribution to our understanding
of the mechanisms of bilingual language comprehension beyond the word level.

In English the syntactic pattern of gender agreement is determined by the
possessor (e.g., Andrew’s daughter>his daughter; Sue’s daughter>her daughter);
in Italian and Spanish it is determined by the possessum. However, although the
syntactic pattern is the same in Italian and Spanish, in Italian gender agreement is
morphologically overt in all person number combinations, except third person
plural contexts, while in Spanish, it is limited to 1st and 2nd plural contexts (e.g.,
Italian: La figlia di Andrew>sua figlia; La figlia di Sue>sua figlia; Spanish: La hija
de Andrew>su hija; La hija de Sue>su hija).

These theoretically interesting cross-linguistic differences will allow us to:

1) test whether bilingual speakers’ two languages are co-activated at the level of
morpho-syntactic information in sentence comprehension;

2) measure the extent to which the overt morphological marking of syntactic
gender agreement determines the likelihood of such activation.


One control group of monolingual English speakers (N=40); two groups of fluent
bilingual speakers (Italian, N=40; Spanish N=40).


We will use the visual world paradigm in which participants observe pictures on a
screen while listening to sentences played over speakers. The experimental
sentences will be of the type in (1) and (2):

(1)The ballerina will mend her old scarf. TARGET (scarf), DISTRACTOR (glove)

(2)The fireman will drink his cold beer. TARGET (beer), DISTRACTOR (wine)

We will manipulate the gender congruency between the possessive (e.g., her in
(1) and his in (2)) and the gender of the Italian and Spanish translation of the two
semantically plausible nouns (e.g. scarf>sciarpa/bufanda (FEM),
glove>guanto/guante (MASC), beer>birra/cerveza (FEM), wine>vino/vino
(MASC)). In half of the items the possessive will match the gender of the
translation of the target item in Italian/Spanish as in (1) -her old scarf- (gender
congruency condition); in the other half there will be a mismatch between the
gender of the possessive and the gender of the target item as in (2) – his cold
beer (gender incongruency condition).


1) There will be no significant difference in the fixation duration (indexing
processing) and the saccadic latency (indexing predictability) between target and
distractors for monolingual speakers before the onset of the target word;

2) Italian-English bilinguals will have shorter latencies and longer fixation times for
the items whose Italian translation matches the gender of the possessive;

3) In the absence of overt gender agreement the Spanish-English bilinguals will
behave like the English controls.