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Open Access Research article

ERP evidence for different strategies in the processing of case markers in native speakers and non-native learners

Jutta L Mueller, Masako Hirotani and Angela D Friederici

Author affiliations

Neuropsychology Department, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences,, Leipzig, Germany

Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2007, 8:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-8-18

Published: 2 March 2007

Abstract

Background

The present experiments were designed to test how the linguistic feature of case is processed in Japanese by native and non-native listeners. We used a miniature version of Japanese as a model to compare sentence comprehension mechanisms in native speakers and non-native learners who had received training until they had mastered the system. In the first experiment we auditorily presented native Japanese speakers with sentences containing incorrect double nominatives and incorrect double accusatives, and with correct sentences. In the second experiment we tested trained non-natives with the same material. Based on previous research in German we expected an N400-P600 biphasic ERP response with specific modulations depending on the violated case and whether the listeners were native or non-native.

Results

For native Japanese participants the general ERP response to the case violations was an N400-P600 pattern. Double accusatives led to an additional enhancement of the P600 amplitude. For the learners a native-like P600 was present for double accusatives and for double nominatives. The additional negativity, however, was present in learners only for double nominative violations, and it was characterized by a different topographical distribution.

Conclusion

The results indicate that native listeners use case markers for thematic as well as syntactic structure building during incremental sentence interpretation. The modulation of the P600 component for double accusatives possibly reflects case specific syntactic restrictions in Japanese. For adult language learners later processes, as reflected in the P600, seem to be more native-like compared to earlier processes. The anterior distribution of the negativity and its selective emergence for canonical sentences were taken to suggest that the non-native learners resorted to a rather formal processing strategy whereby they relied to a large degree on the phonologically salient nominative case marker.