ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2013, Vol. 45 ›› Issue (7): 773-782.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2013.00773

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The Syntactic Processing of English Passive Sentence for Late Chinese-English Bilingualists: An ERP Study


  1. (1 School of Foreign Languages, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai 200240, China) (2 Department of Psychology, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai 200234, China)
  • Received:2012-01-16 Published:2013-07-25 Online:2013-07-25
  • Contact: WANG Pei

Abstract: Ample studies have investigated the effect of second language proficiency or cross-linguistic similarity on second language sentence processing. But most of them have paid more attention to one of the two factors rather than both, so it remains to be resolved which factor plays a more important role during sentence processing. Meanwhile, previous studies have mainly focused on morphosyntactic and inflectional violations of simple active sentences in Indo-European languages. Few studies on the processing of Chinese bilinguists’ passive English sentence which are difficult language points for them because the structure involves both the past participle forms of the verbs and especially passive usage of verbs. Thus, to investigate the influence of second language proficiency and syntactic similarities on the sensitivity and processing of English passive sentences, 40 late Chinese-English bilinguists were recruited (27 female, 13male; mean age = 23.88 years) who, according to their L2 proficiency, were divided into two groups (high-proficient group including 17 female and 3 male (mean age = 24.15 years) and intermediate-proficient group including 10 female and 10male (mean age = 23.6 years) to read passive sentences carefully and to indicate for each sentence whether or not it was correct. At the same time, according to cross-linguistic similarity between Chinese and English, the experiment materials -- English passive sentences were divided into literal translation sentences which and can be directly converted into Chinese Bei sentences without changes of the order of the key words in sentences and free translation sentences which are different from Chinese syntactic structure and must change the order of the words, especially the order of the agent and the recipient. In this way, these passive English sentences must be converted into active sentences in Chinese, which conforms to Chinese expression and comprehension. And the study adopted four kinds of syntactic anomalies (respectively sentences with no anomaly, sentences with syntactic anomaly 1 referring to the misuse of verb past participle forms, sentences with syntactic anomaly 2 indicating the misuse of verb original forms and sentences with syntactic anomaly 3 involving the misuse of verb present participle forms). Compared to those in free translation sentences, faster reaction time and higher accuracy rate were found in literal translation sentences, which effect was more significant in intermediate-proficient group. Syntactic anomalies with different difficulties directly influenced the passive sentence processing: the response time to obvious syntactic anomalies was fastest while the response time to “partial-correct syntactic information” was longest. Accuracy rates for obvious syntactic anomalies were highest while accuracy rates for fundamental syntactic anomalies were lowest which elicited a biggest P600 compared to P600 evoked by sentences with no anomaly. For high-proficient group, the biggest P600 was found in the fundamental syntactic anomalies while P600 in intermediate-proficient group was not influenced by different syntactic anomalies. The results showed that a better performance (shorter reaction time and higher accuracy rates) was found for high-proficient group than intermediate-proficient group. However, neural activities did not show cross-linguistic similarity effect, indicating that second language proficiency played a more significant role in English passive sentence processing. As for English passive sentence processing, it is difficult even for high-proficient bilinguists to attain the native-like biphasic ERP components due to insensitivity to the structure.

Key words: second language proficiency, cross-linguistic similarities, literal translation sentences, free translation sentences, the late Chinese-English bilinguists