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Syntactic transfer in English-speaking Spanish learners*



Competition Model studies of second language learners have demonstrated that there is a gradual replacement of first language cues for thematic role assignment by second language cues. The current study introduced two methodological innovations in the investigation of this process. The first was the use of mouse-tracking methodology (Spivey, 2007) to assess the online process of thematic role assignment. The second was the inclusion of both a task with language-specific cues and a task with language-common cues. The results of the language-common cue task indicated that, as English-dominant learners become more balanced between English and Spanish, they rely increasingly on a coalition between the animacy cue and the subject–verb agreement cue. However, the results of the language-specific cue task reveal that learners also rely on the cue of prepositional case marking in Spanish and nominal case marking in English. These results provide evidence of forward transfer, backward transfer, and rapid acquisition of cue-based sentence interpretation strategies in second language learning.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Laura M. Morett, Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, 210 S. Bouquet St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260,


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This research was supported by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship (32 CFR 168a) issued by the US Department of Defense, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and a mini-research grant from the University of California, Santa Cruz to Laura M. Morett. We thank Alejandra Gonzalez, Melissa Gone, and Erin Parreira for assistance with data collection and Matthew Wagers for equipment support. Additionally, we thank Carmen Silva-Corvalán and three anonymous reviewers for insightful comments and suggestions. Portions of these results were presented at the Fifty-First Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society (November 2010) and the Third Annual California Cognitive Science Conference (May 2011).



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