The processing of ambiguous sentences by first and second language learners of English

Felser, C., Roberts, L., Marinis, T., & Gross, R. (2003). The processing of ambiguous sentences by first and second language learners of English. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24(3), 453-489.
This study investigates the way adult second language (L2) learners of English resolve relative clause attachment ambiguities in sentences such as The dean liked the secretary of the professor who was reading a letter. Two groups of advanced L2 learners of English with Greek or German as their first language participated in a set of off-line and on-line tasks. The results indicate that the L2 learners do not process ambiguous sentences of this type in the same way as adult native speakers of English do. Although the learners’ disambiguation preferences were influenced by lexical–semantic properties of the preposition linking the two potential antecedent noun phrases (of vs. with), there was no evidence that they applied any phrase structure–based ambiguity resolution strategies of the kind that have been claimed to influence sentence processing in monolingual adults. The L2 learners’ performance also differs markedly from the results obtained from 6- to 7-year-old monolingual English children in a parallel auditory study, in that the children’s attachment preferences were not affected by the type of preposition at all. We argue that children, monolingual adults, and adult L2 learners differ in the extent to which they are guided by phrase structure and lexical–semantic information during sentence processing.
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