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Weird word order bends Basque brains


Spanish L1 speakers who are bilingual in Basque process atypical word order sentences better in Basque (Euskera) than natives do, a study suggests. The researchers conclude that the Spanish-speakers were able to rely on the syntactic features on their mother tongue to help them.

The most common word order in Spanish is subject verb object (SVO). Basque typically uses SOV. The sample was made up of thirty-five Spanish-speakers, all of whom started learning Basque before the age of five, and 35 Basque mother-tongue speakers.

The participants, all in their early twenties, were asked to read 144 Basque sentences which used the SVO word order, the typical Spanish structure, and 144 sentences using OVS, which is uncommon in both Spanish and Basque. While reading OVS sentences, native Basque-speakers experienced some difficulty in semantic processing – as shown by activation of the N400 brain activity signals.

They also showed P600 activity, which occurs in the brain when the person perceives syntactic anomalies. Conversely, Spanish L1 speakers did not generate any brain signals to indicate semantic processing difficulties when reading those same Basque sentences, whether they had an SVO order, typical in Spanish, or an OVS one – which is not.

However, researchers point out that the verb is always positioned between object and subject in Spanish, while Basque normally places the verb at the end.

The study concluded that bilinguals process atypical word orders in L2 based on the grammatical restrictions of their L1.

⇒ Negative Transfer Effects on L2 Word Order Processing Kepa Erdocia* and Itziar Laka. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/