The role of cross-language activation in syntactic ambiguity

Li-Hao Yeh, University of Texas at El Paso


There is much evidence demonstrating that bilinguals activate lexical representations from both of their languages in a non-selective manner even in sentence context. Comparatively less research has examined the extent to which bilingual lexical representations interacts with syntactic processing in sentence context. The purpose of this study is to examine whether bilinguals' cross-language lexical activation could influence their resolution of syntactic ambiguity (e.g. relative clause attachment). Proper attachment of relative clauses (RC) to noun phrases is critical for accurate interpretation of syntactically ambiguous sentences. For instance, the sentence The robber shot the secretary of my husband who goes to work on weekends is syntactically ambiguous, because who could refer either to the first noun (i.e., secretary) or the second noun (i.e., husband ) in the complex noun phrase (NP). Previous monolingual studies have shown that readers' working memory capacity influences their disambiguation process. Since cognates can be easier activated, we hypothesized that when a cognate noun was presented in the complex noun phrase bilinguals would have more mental resources available to disambiguate the attachment ambiguity. Furthermore, previous bilingual studies have shown that monolingual Spanish and English speakers differ in how they prefer to resolve this type of ambiguity. Spanish speakers prefer to resolve the ambiguity by attaching to the first noun and English speakers prefer to attach the second noun. Therefore, in this study we also tested what disambiguation preferences do Spanish-English bilinguals have when they use both languages on a daily bases. This study consisted of two experiments. In each experiment, Spanish-English bilinguals participated in a Sentences Reading Task monitored by an eye-tracker and a reading span task. In experiment 1, I tested whether putting a cognate at the first noun or the second noun position would help bilinguals disambiguate the sentences faster. In experiment 2, I tested the effect of semantic overlap on resolving the syntactic ambiguity of the sentences. More specifically, this experiment included nouns that differ in whether they share all meanings (e.g. piano), only one meaning (e.g. arm) or no meaning (e.g. fin) with Spanish. Using the sentences that are temporally ambiguous (e.g. The security guard shot the daughter of the actor, who just started kindergarten last year ), I have found that bilinguals who attend an English instruction institution show second noun attachment preference even when their self-rating language proficiency is equivalent for both languages. Moreover, the result also showed that irrespective of position of attachment (i.e., first or second noun) in a sentence and as long as the cognate was the correct attached noun, participants significantly spent less time in the region in which attachment is disambiguated (e.g. kindergarten). The results of reading span also showed that as individuals' working memory capacity increased their reading time on disambiguating region decreased. However, words with cross-language properties can alter the correlation between individual working memory capacity and relative clause attachment. Results were discussed in terms of current theories of syntactic parsing and bilingual lexical representation.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Yeh, Li-Hao, "The role of cross-language activation in syntactic ambiguity" (2011). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI3457763.