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Learning words in a third language: Effects of vowel inventory and language proficiency

Escudero, P., Broersma, M., & Simon, E. (2013). Learning words in a third language: Effects of vowel inventory and language proficiency. Language and Cognitive Processes, 28, 746-761. doi:10.1080/01690965.2012.662279.
This study examines the effect of L2 and L3 proficiency on L3 word learning. Native speakers of Spanish with different proficiencies in L2 English and L3 Dutch and a control group of Dutch native speakers participated in a Dutch word learning task involving minimal and non-minimal word pairs. The minimal word pairs were divided into ‘minimal-easy’ and ‘minimal-difficult’ pairs on the basis of whether or not they are known to pose perceptual problems for L1 Spanish learners. Spanish speakers’ proficiency in Dutch and English was independently established by their scores on general language comprehension tests. All participants were trained and subsequently tested on the mapping between pseudo-words and non-objects. The results revealed that, first, both native and non-native speakers produced more errors and longer reaction times for minimal than for non-minimal word pairs, and secondly, Spanish learners had more errors and longer reaction times for minimal-difficult than for minimal-easy pairs. The latter finding suggests that there is a strong continuity between sound perception and L3 word recognition. With respect to proficiency, only the learner’s proficiency in their L2, namely English, predicted their accuracy on L3 minimal pairs. This shows that learning an L2 with a larger vowel inventory than the L1 is also beneficial for word learning in an L3 with a similarly large vowel inventory.
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