Grammatical Gender Representation and Processing in Advanced Second Language Learners of French

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One of the most difficult challenges of learning French as a foreign language is mastering the gender system. Although there are theories that account for how French native speakers (NSs) master their gender system, it is not fully understood why second language (L2) learners are unable to do the same. The goal of the present study was to investigate this difference in ability between French NSs and non-native speakers (NNSs), specifically, how L2 learners of French store grammatical gender knowledge, and how their storage system relates to processing of grammatical gender in terms of the ability to realize accurate gender agreement throughout a sentence.

First, a gender priming task investigated whether advanced L2 learners have developed a gender-nodal system in which gender information is stored as an inherent property of a noun. Second, an online grammaticality judgment task addressed L2 learners' gender agreement ability during processing, while taking into account (a) the role of gender cues available to the participant, and (b) non-linguistic processing constraints such as working memory (WM) through manipulating the distance of an adjective from the noun with which it must agree. In order to investigate the role of a learner's native language (L1) in gender representation and processing, participants included learners of French from three L1 groups: Spanish, whose gender system is congruent to that of French; Dutch, whose gender system is incongruent to that of French; and English, whose gender system is minimal, relative to French. A group of NS controls also participated.

Results from the gender priming task indicate that the NNSs in the current study have not developed a native-like gender-nodal system, regardless of L1-L2 gender-system similarity. At-chance accuracy on the grammaticality judgment task indicates L2 gender agreement is far from native-like, even for advanced learners. Whereas the presence of gender cues was beneficial, neither WM nor L1-L2 similarity facilitated performance. The results from this study confirm previous findings on the difficulty of L2 gender agreement, and shed light on the nature of L2 gender representation as a possible explanation for this processing difficulty.