Processing ser and estar to locate objects and events: An ERP study with l2 speakers of Spanish

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In Spanish locative constructions, a diferent form of the copula is selected in relation to the semantic properties of the grammatical subject: sentences that locate objects require estar while those that locate events require ser (both translated in English as ‘to be’). In an ERP study, we examined whether second language (L2) speakers of Spanish are sensitive to the selectional restrictions that the diferent types of subjects impose on the choice of the two copulas. Twenty-four native speakers of Spanish and two groups of L2 Spanish speakers (24 beginners and 18 advanced speakers) were recruited to investigate the processing of ‘object/event + estar/ser’ permutations. Participants provided grammaticality judgments on correct (object + estar; event + ser) and incorrect (object + ser; event + estar) sentences while their brain activity was recorded. In line with previous studies (Leone-Fernández, Molinaro, Carreiras, & Barber, 2012; Sera, Gathje, & Pintado, 1999), the results of the grammaticality judgment for the native speakers showed that participants correctly accepted object + estar and event + ser constructions. In addition, while ‘object + ser’ constructions were considered grossly ungrammatical, ‘event + estar’ combinations were perceived as unacceptable to a lesser degree. For these same participants, ERP recording time-locked to the onset of the critical word ‘en’ showed a larger P600 for the ser predicates when the subject was an object than when it was an event (*La silla es en la cocina vs. La festa es en la cocina). Tis P600 efect is consistent with syntactic repair of the defning predicate when it does not ft with the adequate semantic properties of the subject. For estar predicates (La silla está en la cocina vs. *La festa está en la cocina), the fndings showed a central-frontal negativity between 500–700 ms. Grammaticality judgment data for the L2 speakers of Spanish showed that beginners were signifcantly less accurate than native speakers in all conditions, while the advanced speakers only difered from the natives in the event+ser and event+estar conditions. For the ERPs, the beginning learners did not show any efects in the time-windows under analysis. Te advanced speakers showed a pattern similar to that of native speakers: (1) a P600 response to ‘object + ser’ violation more central and frontally distributed, and (2) a central-frontal negativity between 500–700 ms for ‘event + estar’ violation. Findings for the advanced speakers suggest that behavioral methods commonly used to assess grammatical knowledge in the L2 may be underestimating what L2 speakers have actually learned.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)54-86
Number of pages33
JournalRevista Espanola de Linguistica Aplicada
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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