Rapid neural processing of grammatical tone in second language learners

Abstract: The present dissertation investigates how beginner learners process grammatical tone in a second language and whether their processing is influenced by phonological transfer. Paper I focuses on the acquisition of Swedish grammatical tone by beginner learners from a non-tonal language, German. Results show that non-tonal beginner learners do not process the grammatical regularities of the tones but rather treat them akin to piano tones. A rightwards-going spread of activity in response to pitch difference in Swedish tones possibly indicates a process of tone sensitisation. Papers II to IV investigate how artificial grammatical tone, taught in a word-picture association paradigm, is acquired by German and Swedish learners. The results of paper II show that interspersed mismatches between grammatical tone and picture referents evoke an N400 only for the Swedish learners. Both learner groups produce N400 responses to picture mismatches related to grammatically meaningful vowel changes. While mismatch detection quickly reaches high accuracy rates, tone mismatches are least accurately and most slowly detected in both learner groups. For processing of the grammatical L2 words outside of mismatch contexts, the results of paper III reveal early, preconscious and late, conscious processing in the Swedish learner group within 20 minutes of acquisition (word recognition component, ELAN, LAN, P600). German learners only produce late responses: a P600 within 20 minutes and a LAN after sleep consolidation. The surprisingly rapid emergence of early grammatical ERP components (ELAN, LAN) is attributed to less resource-heavy processing outside of violation contexts. Results of paper IV, finally, indicate that memory trace formation, as visible in the word recognition component at ~50 ms, is only possible at the highest level of formal and functional similarity, that is, for words with falling tone in Swedish participants. Together, the findings emphasise the importance of phonological transfer in the initial stages of second language acquisition and suggest that the earlier the processing, the more important the impact of phonological transfer.