Processing ser and estar to locate objects and events
An ERP study with L2 speakers of Spanish
In Spanish locative constructions, a different form of the copula is selected in relation to the semantic properties of the grammatical subject: sentences that locate objects require estar while those that locate events require ser (both translated in English as ‘to be’). In an ERP study, we examined whether second language (L2) speakers of Spanish are sensitive to the selectional restrictions that the different types of subjects impose on the choice of the two copulas. Twenty-four native speakers of Spanish and two groups of L2 Spanish speakers (24 beginners and 18 advanced speakers) were recruited to investigate the processing of ‘object/event + estar/ser’ permutations. Participants provided grammaticality judgments on correct (object + estar; event + ser) and incorrect (object + ser; event + estar) sentences while their brain activity was recorded. In line with previous studies (Leone-Fernández, Molinaro, Carreiras, & Barber, 2012; Sera, Gathje, & Pintado, 1999), the results of the grammaticality judgment for the native speakers showed that participants correctly accepted object + estar and event + ser constructions. In addition, while ‘object + ser’ constructions were considered grossly ungrammatical, ‘event + estar’ combinations were perceived as unacceptable to a lesser degree. For these same participants, ERP recording time-locked to the onset of the critical word ‘en’ showed a larger P600 for the ser predicates when the subject was an object than when it was an event (*La silla es en la cocina vs. La fiesta es en la cocina). This P600 effect is consistent with syntactic repair of the defining predicate when it does not fit with the adequate semantic properties of the subject. For estar predicates (La silla está en la cocina vs. *La fiesta está en la cocina), the findings showed a central-frontal negativity between 500–700 ms. Grammaticality judgment data for the L2 speakers of Spanish showed that beginners were significantly less accurate than native speakers in all conditions, while the advanced speakers only differed from the natives in the event+ser and event+estar conditions. For the ERPs, the beginning learners did not show any effects in the time-windows under analysis. The advanced speakers showed a pattern similar to that of native speakers: (1) a P600 response to ‘object + ser’ violation more central and frontally distributed, and (2) a central-frontal negativity between 500–700 ms for ‘event + estar’ violation. Findings for the advanced speakers suggest that behavioral methods commonly used to assess grammatical knowledge in the L2 may be underestimating what L2 speakers have actually learned.