The activation of grammaticalized meaning in L2 processing: Toward an explanation of the morphological congruency effect

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© 2015, © The Author(s) 2015. Objectives: The study was intended to test the hypothesis that L2 speakers have difficulty in automatically activating a grammaticalized L2 meaning that is not morphologically marked in L1. Methodology: The study consisted of three experiments. A sentence–picture matching task was designed to assess the activation of grammaticalized meaning. The participants were asked to judge if a sentence correctly described the physical relationships of three objects in a picture. Hidden in the stimuli that required a positive response was a number agreement manipulation whereby a noun phrase in the sentence may agree or disagree with the number of objects in the picture. A number disagreement effect, as shown in a delay in producing a positive response on items of number disagreement was used to assess automatic activation of number meanings. Data and Analysis: The data constituted reaction times and accuracy rates from 32 English native speakers, 36 Chinese native speakers, 54 Chinese–English bilinguals, and 26 Russian–English bilinguals. Analyses of variance were performed in analyzing these data. Findings: The results showed a number disagreement effect in L1 and L2 among Russian English as a second language (ESL) speakers only. Chinese ESL speakers showed no difference between the two critical conditions in either language. A follow-up experiment showed that Chinese ESL speakers had no difficulty in automatically activating number meanings which were expressed lexically in English sentence processing. These findings provided support for the idea that the well documented difficulty L2 learners have in learning incongruent L2 inflectional morphemes may have to do with their difficulty in automatically activating a grammaticalized meaning that is not grammaticalized in their L1. Originality: The sentence–picture matching task represented a unique and effective approach to the study of the activation of grammaticalized meanings. Significance: The findings from the study represented some first psycholinguistic evidence regarding the activation of grammaticalized meanings among non-native speakers.


Jiang, N., Hu, G., Chrabaszcz, A., & Ye, L. (2017). The activation of grammaticalized meaning in L2 processing: Toward an explanation of the morphological congruency effect. International Journal of Bilingualism, 21(1), 81–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367006915603823

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