There is a debate as to whether second language (L2) learners show qualitatively similar processing profiles as native speakers or whether L2 learners are restricted in their ability to use syntactic information during online processing. In the realm of wh-dependency resolution, research has examined whether learners, similar to native speakers, attempt to resolve wh-dependencies in grammatically licensed contexts but avoid positing gaps in illicit contexts such as islands. Also at issue is whether the avoidance of gap filling in islands is due to adherence to syntactic constraints or whether islands simply present processing bottlenecks. One approach has been to examine the relationship between processing abilities and the establishment of wh-dependencies in islands. Grammatical accounts of islands do not predict such a relationship as the parser should simply not predict gaps in illicit contexts. In contrast, a pattern of results showing that individuals with more processing resources are better able to establish wh-dependencies in islands could conceivably be compatible with certain processing accounts. In a self-paced reading experiment which examines the processing of wh-dependencies, we address both questions, examining whether native English speakers and Korean learners of English show qualitatively similar patterns and whether there is a relationship between working memory, as measured by counting span and reading span, and processing in both island and non-island contexts. The results of the self-paced reading experiment suggest that learners can use syntactic information on the same timecourse as native speakers, showing qualitative similarity between the two groups. Results of regression analyses did not reveal a significant relationship between working memory and the establishment of wh-dependencies in islands but we did observe significant relationships between working memory and the processing of licit wh-dependencies. As the contexts in which these relationships emerged differed for learners and native speakers, our results call for further research examining individual differences in dependency resolution in both populations.
Johnson, A., Fiorentino, R., & Gabriele, A. (2016). Syntactic Constraints and Individual Differences in Native and Non-Native Processing of Wh-Movement. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 549. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00549