Brain potentials reveal differential processing of masculine and feminine grammatical gender in native Spanish speakers

Anne L. Beatty-Martínez, Michelle R. Bruni, María Teresa Bajo, Paola E. Dussias

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Studies of Spanish grammatical gender have shown that native speakers exploit gender cues in determiners to facilitate speech processing and are sensitive to gender mismatches. However, past research has not considered attested distributional asymmetries between masculine and feminine gender, collapsing performance on trials with one or the other gender into a single analysis. We use event-related potentials to investigate whether masculine and feminine grammatical gender elicit qualitatively different brain responses. Forty monolingual Spanish speakers read sentences that were well-formed or contained determiner-noun gender violations. Half of the nouns were masculine and the other half were feminine. Consistent with previous research, brain responses varied along a continuum between LAN- and P600-dominant effects for both gender categories. However, results showed that individuals’ ERP response dominance (LAN/P600) systematically differed across the two genders: participants who showed a LAN-dominant response to masculine-noun violations were more likely to show a P600 effect in response to feminine-noun violations. Correlations with individual difference measures further revealed that responses to masculine-noun violations were modulated by performance on the AX-CPT, a measure of cognitive control, whereas responses to feminine-noun violations were modulated by lexical knowledge, as indexed by verbal fluency. Together, the results demonstrate that even when processing features of language that belong to the same “natural class,” native speakers can exhibit patterns of brain activity attuned to distributional patterns of language use. The inherent variability in native speaker processing is, therefore, an important factor when explaining purported deviations from the “native norm” reported in other types of populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13737
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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