Individual Chunking Ability Predicts Efficient or Shallow L2 Processing: Eye-Tracking Evidence From Multiword Units in Relative Clauses

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Behavioral studies on language processing rely on the eye-mind assumption, which states that the time spent looking at text is an index of the time spent processing it. In most cases, relatively shorter reading times are interpreted as evidence of greater processing efficiency. However, previous evidence from L2 research indicates that non-native participants who present fast reading times are not always more efficient readers, but rather shallow parsers. Because earlier studies did not identify a reliable predictor of variability in L2 processing, such uncertainty around the interpretation of reading times introduces a potential confound that undermines the credibility and the conclusions of online measures of processing. The present study proposes that a recently developed modulator of online processing efficiency, namely, chunking ability, may account for the observed variability in L2 online reading performance. L1 English – L2 Spanish learners’ eye movements were analyzed during natural reading. Chunking ability was predictive of overall reading speed. Target relative clauses contained L2 Verb-Noun multiword units, which were manipulated with regards to their L1-L2 congruency. The results indicated that processing of the L1-L2 incongruent units was modulated by an interaction of L2 chunking ability and level of knowledge of multiword units. Critically, the data revealed an inverse U-shaped pattern, with faster reading times in both learners with the highest and the lowest chunking ability scores, suggesting fast integration in the former, and lack of integration in the latter. Additionally, the presence of significant differences between conditions was correlated with individual chunking ability. The findings point at chunking ability as a significant modulator of general L2 processing efficiency, and of cross-language differences in particular, and add clarity to the interpretation of variability in the online reading performance of non-native speakers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number607621
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Jan 15 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


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