The role of verbal working memory in L2 sentence comprehension
Evidence from advanced German learners of English
Considerable variability has been observed in sentence comprehension abilities in both native speakers and second language (L2) learner populations. While it has long been established that, in native speakers, this variability is closely linked to individual differences (IDs) in verbal working memory (vWM), previous research on the role of vWM in L2 sentence comprehension has produced mixed results. Moreover, there is an accumulating body of evidence demonstrating that the relationship between vWM and native language comprehension abilities is mediated by language experience. However, to our knowledge, until now, no attempt has been made to integrate language experience measures into the vWM-L2 sentence comprehension relationship. The goal of the present study is twofold: (1) to determine whether and to what extent vWM – as gauged by a reading span (RSPAN) task – correlates with IDs in two proxy estimates of L2 experience and (2) to investigate the effects of vWM on L2 comprehension of three different types of complex sentences. Thirty-four German advanced learners of English participated in this study. Significant positive correlations were found between the RSPAN scores and both proxy estimates of L2 experience. Mixed-effects modeling revealed that vWM exerted a significant effect on L2 sentence comprehension that was not modulated by sentence type. Taken together, these results provide additional evidence in support of the involvement of vWM in L2 sentence comprehension and, to our knowledge, first evidence for the contribution of L2 experience to RSPAN task performance.
Keywords: (verbal) working memory, language experience, individual differences, second language sentence comprehension, experience-based models
Published online: 10 April 2020
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