Parsing a first language like a second: The erosion of L1 parsing strategies in Spanish-English Bilinguals

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Past research suggests that parsing processes in a bilingual's first language (L1) can undergo changes as a function of exposure to a second language (L2). Evidence for this claim comes from studies that have examined how Spanish-English bilinguals resolve temporarily ambiguous sentences containing a complex noun phrase followed by a relative clause, as is the case in “Peter fell in love with the daughter of the psychologist who studied in California.” Previous studies indicate that whereas monolingual Spanish speakers attach the relative clause to the first noun in the complex noun phrase (non-local attachment), monolingual English speakers interpret the relative clause locally (i.e., attach the relative clause to the noun immediately preceding it). With respect to bilinguals, recent research with Spanish-English bilinguals and professional translators (e.g., Dussias 2001, 2003; Parede, 2004) have shown that bilinguals attach the relative clause to the second noun in the complex noun phrase, when reading in Spanish, their first language. The differences observed between monolingual and bilingual speakers have been attributed to experience in a second language immersion environment. For example, Dussias (2003) argues that extensive exposure to a preponderance of English constructions resolved in favor of local attachment can render this interpretation more available, resulting in the low attachment preference observed in Spanish-English bilinguals. Of interest in the present paper is to assess whether speakers with fewer years of immersion experience in the L2 environment than those reported in previous studies employ the correct strategy in each of their languages. To this end, eye-movement data was collected while proficient L1 Spanish/L2 English speakers read ambiguous sentences of the type described above, in their first language, and their performance was compared to a monolingual Spanish group. Analyses revealed that the L1 Spanish speakers of English favored local over non-local attachment when reading in their first languages. The results are most congruent with exposure-based or parallel interactive models of sentence parsing as postulated by Brysbaert & Mitchell (1996), Mitchell & Cuetos (1991) and Mitchell, Cuetos, Corley & Brysbaert (1995), given the assumption within these models that frequency-based exposure affects parsing decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)355-371
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of Bilingualism
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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