Native-likeness in second language lexical categorization reflects individual language history and linguistic community norms

Benjamin D. Zinszer, Barbara C. Malt, Eef Ameel, Ping Li

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28 Scopus citations


Second language learners face a dual challenge in vocabulary learning: First, they must learn new names for the hundreds of common objects that they encounter every day. Second, after some time, they discover that these names do not generalize according to the same rules used in their first language. Lexical categories frequently differ between languages (Malt et al., 1999), and successful language learning requires that bilinguals learn not just new words but new patterns for labeling objects. In the present study, Chinese learners of English with varying language histories and resident in two different language settings (Beijing, China and State College, PA, USA) named 67 photographs of common serving dishes (e.g., cups, plates, and bowls) in both Chinese and English. Participants' response patterns were quantified in terms of similarity to the responses of functionally monolingual native speakers of Chinese and English and showed the cross-language convergence previously observed in simultaneous bilinguals (Ameel et al., 2005). For English, bilinguals' names for each individual stimulus were also compared to the dominant name generated by the native speakers for the object. Using two statistical models, we disentangle the effects of several highly interactive variables from bilinguals' language histories and the naming norms of the native speaker community to predict inter-personal and inter-item variation in L2 (English) native-likeness. We find only a modest age of earliest exposure effect on L2 category native-likeness, but importantly, we find that classroom instruction in L2 negatively impacts L2 category native-likeness, even after significant immersion experience. We also identify a significant role of both L1 and L2 norms in bilinguals' L2 picture naming responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1203
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberOCT
StatePublished - 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


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