Within- and Between-Language Competition in Adult Second Language Learners: Implications for Language Proficiency

Second language (L2) learners must not only acquire L2 knowledge (i.e. vocabulary and grammar), but they must also rapidly access this knowledge. In monolinguals, efficient spoken word recognition is accomplished via lexical competition, by which listeners activate a range of candidates that compete for recognition as the signal unfolds. We examined this in adult L2 learners, investigating lexical competition both amongst words of the L2, and between L2 and native language (L1) words. Adult L2 learners (N = 33) in their third semester of college Spanish completed a cross-linguistic Visual World Paradigm task to assess lexical activation, along with a proficiency assessment (LexTALE-Esp). L2 learners showed typical incremental processing activating both within-L2 and cross-linguistic competitors, similar to fluent bilinguals. Proficiency correlated with both the speed of activating the target (which prior work links to the developmental progression in L1) and the degree to which competition ultimately resolves (linked to robustness of the lexicon).