The Comprehension of Words and Sentences in Two Languages


Psycholinguistics has traditionally been taken to include the comprehension, production, and acquisition of the native or first language (L1). The mechanisms that enable bilinguals to understand the meaning of words and sentences in a second language (L2) have only been investigated more recently and for some, that investigation has been viewed as an exercise that is separate and apart from studies of native-language processing. Some bilinguals acquire two languages early in life and maintain each of the languages in equal balance. But many more bilinguals acquire the L2 after early childhood and face a challenging process of late learning that results in mixed outcomes with grammatical proficiency that fails to reach native-speaker levels (e.g., Johnson and Newport 1989) and speech that is accented (e.g., Flege, Yeni-Komshian, and Liu 1999). If the L2 is acquired late, then even relatively proficient bilinguals may not engage the same mechanisms to process the L2 as are available to them in the L1 (e.g., Clahsen and Felser 2006). On this view, L2 processing in late bilinguals may tell us something special about how other resources are recruited to enable comprehension, but it reflects a process that itself is constrained and therefore limited in the degree to which it can inform theories of language processing more generally.

In the past 15–20 years, there has been a revision in our ...

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