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The influence of language deprivation in early childhood on L2 processing: An ERP comparison of deaf native signers and deaf signers with a delayed language acquisition

Nils Skotara1*, Uta Salden1, Monique Kügow1, Barbara Hänel-Faulhaber2 and Brigitte Röder1

Author affiliations

1 Biologische Psychologie & Neuropsychologie, Universität Hamburg, Von-Melle-Park 11, Hamburg 20146, Germany

2 Erziehungswissenschaften, Sektion II: Wahrnehmung & Kommunikation, Universität Hamburg, Sedanstr. 19, Hamburg 20146, Germany

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Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:44  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-13-44

Published: 3 May 2012



To examine which language function depends on early experience, the present study compared deaf native signers, deaf non-native signers and hearing German native speakers while processing German sentences. The participants watched simple written sentences while event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded. At the end of each sentence they were asked to judge whether the sentence was correct or not. Two types of violations were introduced in the middle of the sentence: a semantically implausible noun or a violation of subject-verb number agreement.


The results showed a similar ERP pattern after semantic violations (an N400 followed by a positivity) in all three groups. After syntactic violations, native German speakers and native signers of German sign language (DGS) with German as second language (L2) showed a left anterior negativity (LAN) followed by a P600, whereas no LAN but a negativity over the right hemisphere instead was found in deaf participants with a delayed onset of first language (L1) acquisition. The P600 of this group had a smaller amplitude and a different scalp distribution as compared to German native speakers.


The results of the present study suggest that language deprivation in early childhood alters the cerebral organization of syntactic language processing mechanisms for L2. Semantic language processing instead was unaffected.