Skip to main content Accessibility help

Second language sentence processing in reading for comprehension and translation*



A self-paced reading and translation task was used with learners of English as a second language (L2) to explore what sorts of information L2 learners use during online comprehension compared to native speakers, and how task (reading for comprehension vs. translation) and proficiency affect L2 comprehension. Thirty-six Korean native speakers of English and 32 native English speakers read plausible and implausible subject relative clauses and object relative clauses. Reading times, comprehension accuracy, and translations were analyzed. Results showed that L2 learners were able to use syntactic information similarly to native speakers during comprehension, and that online L2 processing and offline comprehension were modulated by reading goals and proficiency. Results are interpreted as showing that L2 processing is quantitatively rather than qualitatively different from first language processing, i.e. strategically “good enough”.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Jung Hyun Lim, Department of Educational Psychology, Education Building, MC-708 University of Illinois, 1310 S. 6th St., Champaign, IL 61820,


Hide All

An earlier version of this research was presented at the Second Language Research Forum (University of Maryland, 2010). The authors thank the members of the Educational Psychology Psycholinguistics Lab for helping with data collection and Steve Luke for advice about data analysis. The authors also thank three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments. This research was funded in part by a UIUC Campus Research Board grant, a summer GA support award from the UIUC Bureau of Educational Research, and NSF BCS-0847533 to Kiel Christianson and a Cognitive Science/Artificial Intelligence (CS/AI) award from the Beckman Institute to Jung Hyun Lim.



Hide All
Agresti, A. (2007). An introduction to categorical data analysis (2nd edn.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Baayen, R. H., Davidson, D. J., & Bates, D. M. (2008). Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Langage, 59, 390412.
Bates, E., & MacWhinney, B. (1987). Competition, variation, and language learning. In MacWhinney, B. (ed.), Mechanisms of language acquisition, pp. 157193. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Buck, G. (1992). Translation as a language testing procedure: Does it work? Language Testing, 9 (2), 123148.
Campbell, S. (1998). Translation into the second language. New York: Longman.
Cho, S. (1999). The acquisition of relative clauses: Experimental studies on Korean. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Christianson, K., Hollingworth, A., Halliwell, J. F., & Ferreira, F. (2001). Thematic roles ssigned along the garden path linger. Cognitive Psychology, 42, 368407.
Christianson, K., & Luke, S. G. (2011). Context strengthens initial misinterpretations of text. Scientific Studies of Reading, 15, 136166.
Christianson, K., Luke, S. G., & Ferreira, F. (2010). Effects of plausibility on structural priming. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 36 (2), 538544.
Christianson, K., Luke, S. G., & Wochna, K. (2012). Garden-path vs. local coherence structures: Similarities and differences in parsing and interpretation. Ms., University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Christianson, K., Williams, C., Zacks, R., & Ferreira, F. (2006). Younger and older adults’ good enough interpretations of garden-path sentences. Discourse Processes, 42, 205238.
Clahsen, H., & Felser, C. (2006a). Grammatical processing in language learners. Applied Psycholinguistics, 27, 342.
Clahsen, H., & Felser, C. (2006b). Continuity and shallow structures in language processing. Applied Psycholinguistics, 27, 107126.
Clifton, C. Jr., & Frazier, L. (1989). Comprehending sentences with long distance dependencies. In Carlson, G. & Tanenhaus, M. (eds.), Linguistic structure in language processing, pp. 273317. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Conway, A. R. A., Kane, M. J., Bunting, M. F., Hambrick, D. Z., Wilhelm, O., & Engle, R. W. (2005). Working memory span tasks: A methodological review and user's guide. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 12, 769786.
Cordero, A. D. (1984). The role of translation in second language acquisition. The French Review, 57 (3), 350355.
Danks, J. H., & Griffin, J. (1997). Reading and translation. In Danks, J. H., Shreve, G. M., Fountain, S. B. & McBeath, M. K. (eds.), Cognitive processes in translation and interpreting, pp. 161175. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dussias, P. E. (2001). Sentence parsing in fluent Spanish–English bilinguals. In Nicol, J. (ed.), One mind, two languages: Bilingual language processing, pp. 159176. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Felser, C., & Roberts, L. (2007). Processing wh-dependencies in a second language: A cross-modal priming study. Second Language Research, 23 (1), 936.
Felser, C., Roberts, L., Gross, R., & Marinis, T. (2003). The processing of ambiguous sentences by first and second language learners of English. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 453489.
Ferreira, F. (2003). The misinterpretation of noncanonical sentences. Cognitive Psychology, 47, 164–203.
Ferreira, F., Bailey, K., & Ferraro, V. (2002). Good enough representations in language comprehension. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 1115.
Ferreira, F., Christianson, K., & Hollingworth, A. (2001). Misinterpretations of garden-path sentences: Implications for models of sentence processing and reanalysis. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 30 (1), 320.
Ferreira, F., & Patson, N. D. (2007). The ‘good-enough’ approach to language comprehension. Language and Linguistics Compass, 1 (1–2), 7183.
Fisher, C., Hall, D., Rakowitz, S., & Gleitman, L. (1994). When it is better to receive than to give: Syntactic and conceptual constraints on vocabulary growth. Lingua, 92, 333375.
Frenck-Mestre, C. (2002). An on-line look at sentence processing in the second language. In Heredia, R. & Altarriba, J. (eds.), Bilingual sentence processing, pp. 218236. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Frenck-Mestre, C., & Pynte, J. (1997). Syntactic ambiguity resolution while reading in second and native languages. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 50A, 119148.
Gerver, D. (1976). Empirical studies of simultaneous interpretation: A review and a model. In Brislin, R. W. (ed.), Translation: Application and research, pp. 165207. New York: Gardiner.
Gibson, E., Hickok, G., & Schütze, C. T. (1994). Processing empty categories: A parallel approach. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 23, 381405.
Gregg, K. (1996). The logical and developmental problems of second language acquisition. In William, C. R. & Bhatia, T. K. (eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition, pp. 5084. New York: Academic Press.
Holmes, V. M., & O'Regan, J. K. (1981). Eye fixation patterns during the reading of relative clause sentences. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 20, 417430.
Hopp, H. (2006). Syntactic features and reanalysis in near-native processing. Second Language Research, 22, 369397.
Jackson, C. (2008). Proficiency level and the interaction of lexical and morphosyntactic information during L2 sentence processing. Language Learning, 58 (4), 875909.
Jackson, C., & Bobb, S. C. (2009). The processing and comprehension of wh-questions among second language speakers of German. Applied Psycholinguistics, 30, 603636.
Jackson, C., & Dussias, P. E. (2009). Cross-linguistic differences and their impact on L2 sentence processing. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 12 (1), 6582.
Jackson, C., & Roberts, L. (2010). Animacy affects the processing of subject–object ambiguities in the second language: Evidence from self-paced reading with German and second language learners of Dutch. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 671691.
Jaeger, T. F. (2008). Categorical data analysis: Away from ANOVAs (transformation or not) and towards logit mixed models. Journal of Memory and Language, 59, 434446.
Juffs, A. (1998). Main verb versus reduced relative clause ambiguity resolution in second language sentence processing. Language Learning, 48, 107147.
Just, M. A., & Carpenter, P. A. (1992). A capacity theory of comprehension: Individual differences in working memory capacity. Psychological Review, 99, 122149.
King, J., & Just, M. A. (1991). Individual differences in syntactic processing: The role of working memory. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 580602.
Kim, J.-H. (2008). Working memory effects on bilingual sentence processing. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Kuperberg, G. R. (2007). Neural mechanisms of language comprehension: Challenges to syntax. Brain Research (Special Issue), 1146, 2349.
Leeser, M. J., Brandl, A., & Whiteglass, C. (2011). Task effects in second language processing research. In Tromovich, P. & McDonough, K. (eds). Applied priming methods to L2 learning, teaching and research: Insights from psycholinguistics, pp. 179198. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Lim, J.-H., & Christianson, K. (2012). L2 morphological sensitivity in comprehension and translation: Evidence from eye-movements. Ms., University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Luke, S. G., & Christianson, K. (2011). Stem and whole-word frequency effects in the processing of inflected verbs in and out of a sentence context. Language and Cognitive Processes, 26, 11731192.
Macizo, P., & Bajo, M. T. (2004). When translation makes the difference: Sentence processing in reading and translation. Psicologica, 25, 181205.
Macizo, P., & Bajo, M. T. (2006). Reading for repetition and reading for translation: Do they involve the same process? Cognition, 99, 134.
Malakoff, M. E. (1992). Translation ability: A natural bilingual and metalinguistic skill. In Harris, R. J. (ed.), Cognitive processing in bilinguals (vol. 83). pp. 515529. New York: Elsevier.
Marinis, T., Roberts, L., Felser, C., & Clahsen, H. (2005). Gaps in second language sentence processing. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27, 5378.
Nicol, J., & Pickering, M. J. (1993). Processing syntactically ambiguous sentences: Evidence from semantic priming. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 22, 207237.
O'Grady, W., Lee, M., & Choo, M. (2003). A subject–object asymmetry in the acquisition of relative clauses in Korean as a second language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 25, 433448.
Papadopoulou, D., & Clahsen, H. (2003). Parsing strategies in L1 and L2 sentence processing: A study of relative clause attachment in Greek. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 501528.
Pinker, S. (1984). Language learnability and language development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sachs, J. S. (1967). Recognition memory for syntactic and semantic aspects of connected discourse. Perception and Psychophysics, 2, 437442.
Swets, B., Desmet, T., Clifton, C., & Ferreira, F. (2008). Undersepcification of syntactic ambiguities: Evidence from self-paced reading. Memory & Cognition, 36 (1), 201216.
Townsend, D. J., & Bever, T. G. (2001). Sentence comprehension: The integration of habits and rules. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Traxler, M. J., Morris, R. K., & Seely, R. E. (2002). Processing subject and object relative clauses: Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Memory and Language, 47, 6990.
Williams, J. N. (2006). Incremental interpretation in second language sentence processing. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 9, 7181.
Williams, J. N., Mobius, P., & Kim, C.-K. (2001). Native and non-native processing of English wh-questions: Parsing strategies and plausibility constraints. Applied Psycholinguistics, 22 (4), 509540.



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed