In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sentence Processing in Monolingual and Bilingual Speakers

  • Introduction
  • Studies on Sentence Processing with Monolingual and Bilingual Speakers Using Neuroimaging Techniques
  • The Role of Individual Differences in L1 and L2 Processing

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Linguistics Sentence Processing in Monolingual and Bilingual Speakers
Paola E. Dussias, Anne L. Beatty-Martínez, Michael A. Johns, Manuel F. Pulido
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0231


The main goal of monolingual models of sentence processing is to explain how the syntactic processor (or parser) assigns structure to an incoming string of words. The theoretical divide in the field has been about whether the architecture and mechanisms of the human sentence processor are modular—and computations are carried out serially—or whether it is interactive and computations are carried out in parallel. The debate about bilingual sentence processing has, instead, focused on whether bilingual speakers process their second language in a manner similar to monolingual speakers of the target language. Proposals rooted in generative approaches to language acquisition argue that adult second language (L2) learners lack access to the universal principles or the ability to reset parameters that guide language acquisition and language processing in their L2. Models grounded in neurocognitive approaches to memory hold that late bilinguals recruit different memory systems compared to native speakers of the target language. Other models have argued that differences in first and second language processing result largely from capacity differences, differences in susceptibility to interference, or lack of predictive ability. More recently, several studies have turned toward more experience-driven accounts, eschewing the earlier assumption that the first language is static and unchanging, and instead focusing on the interactive and interconnected nature of the bilingual linguistic system. These studies have revealed that not only does the first language (L1) affect L2 syntactic processing, but experience with the L2 can have ramifications for processing in the native language. A range of experimental techniques are employed to investigate how monolingual and bilingual speakers process language at the sentence level. Eye-tracking techniques allow measurement of responses, such as eye movements and pupil dilation, to study written and auditory language processing. Such measures permit insight into the cognitive processes that are engaged when individuals read written text or inspect visual scenes. Electrophysiological measures are particularly helpful for understanding the time course of neural activity associated with language and cognitive processes. Event-related potentials (ERPs) are obtained by recording and averaging across brain potentials associated with time-locked events (e.g., a word in a sentence). Electrophysiological measures are used to determine which stages of processing are affected by the experimental manipulation. Neuroimaging provides information about changes in brain structure and function. For example, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technique can be used to visualize which brain regions are engaged in processing a particular type of sentence. Although neuroimaging is a relatively-new methodology, it holds great promise for increasing our understanding of the dynamic processes in the brain related to language. The writing of this bibliography was supported in part by National Science Foundation (NSF) grant BCS-1535124 and OISE 1545900 to Paola E. Dussias.

Approaches to Monolingual Sentence Processing

During sentence processing, readers and listeners must minimally retrieve the meaning of each word in the input, group the words into syntactic constituents, and create dependencies between them to assign grammatical roles and to arrive at the intended meaning. Our experience as listeners and readers tells us that this process is very rapid and efficient. Much research effort has gone into developing a theory of the architecture of the human sentence-processing mechanism that can explain how the parser computes the syntactic structure of sentences, and how it does so in a remarkably short period of time. Serial or two-stage accounts of processing propose that processing decisions are modular with respect to the type of information initially available to the parser. Constraint-based theories of sentence processing propose instead that readers and speakers select “likely alternatives” during sentence processing, which are derived from experience with language and from the richness of the linguistic signal. Recently other researchers have discussed the role of resource allocation and of sufficiently unexpected events as a source of processing difficulty. Finally, a proposal dubbed “good-enough processing” considers an account in which readers construct ungrammatical representations by using heuristic strategies whose output is congruent with real-world knowledge information (e.g., plausibility information). Pickering and van Gompel 2006 and Traxler, et al. 2018 provide complementary reviews of the topic.

  • Pickering, M. J., and R. P. G. van Gompel. 2006. Syntactic parsing. In The handbook of psycholinguistics. 2d ed. Edited by M. Traxler and M. A. Gernsbacher, 455–488. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    This chapter overviews the major issues on syntactic processing in monolingual speakers, overviewing serial (or two-stage accounts of parsing) and interactive accounts. It discusses frequency effects, effects of plausibility, prosody, and the research on the immediate integration of the sentence with the non-linguistic context.

  • Traxler, M. J., L. J. Hoversten, and T. A. Brothers. 2018. Sentence processing and interpretation in monolinguals and bilinguals. In The handbook of psycholinguistics. Edited by E. Fernández and H. Smith Cairns, 320–344. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

    This is a chapter overview of the current issues and current models pertaining to syntactic processing in monolingual and bilingual speakers. The authors review earlier models of sentence processing, and also discuss contemporary theories of syntactic processing, including “surprisal,” Bayesian approaches to probability, and “good-enough processing.” The authors also review the contribution of electrophysiological methods as a window into the processes underlying syntactic processing.

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