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The present study is motivated by two questions. First, can late learners of a second language (L2), who begin learning after puberty and are unbalanced bilinguals, activate or visualize the meaning of an L2 word or sentence as quickly as do first language (L1) speakers? Second, if so, what factors—such as L2 proficiency and the amount of its use—contribute to developing native–like efficient processing in L2?

To address these questions, the degrees of automatic semantic activation were compared between L1 and L2 speakers through emotional involvement during word recognition and mental imagery generation during sentential reading. To this end, a total of 60 late–advanced L2 Korean speakers participated in the emotional Stroop Task and the sentence–based picture recognition task along with 36 L1 Korean speakers.

The results revealed that the emotional Stroop effect was not statistically significant in the late L2 group but was significant in the L1 group; whereas the sentence–picture congruency effect was significant in both L2 and L1 groups with similar degrees. This means that late L2 Korean speakers could activate sentence meaning during L2 sentential reading as automatically as L1 speakers but could not activate word meaning as efficiently as L1 speakers. Different degrees of semantic activation among the L2 group across experiments compared to L1 speakers can be considered as cross–task variation; that is, L2 speakers exhibited native–like patterns when semantic activation was promoted but did not when constrained in the tasks (in a sentence–based picture recognition task and an emotional Stroop task, respectively).

Furthermore, the results showed that the effect of L2 use was positively significant both on the emotional Stroop effect and the sentence–picture congruency effect. These findings suggest that the degree of automatic semantic activation during L2 word recognition, as well as sentence reading can be improved with increased L2 use, despite the late starting age of L2 acquisition. Overall, the present study found positive evidence that late L2 speakers may achieve native–like efficiency in reading comprehension in L2, assisted with the extensive L2 use in addition to high proficiency in L2.