An ERP examination of figurative language processing in Spanish-English bilinguals
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This study examined the differences in Event-Related Potential (ERPs) amplitudes and reaction times (RTs) with English-Spanish bilingual readers when processing English idiomatic phrases. Twenty-eight English-Spanish bilinguals from Texas A&M International University participated in the study (13 males, 15 females). Participants were administered a meaningfulness judgment task. In this task, participants were asked to determine if a visually presented target, was related to the preceding context, kick the bucket-DIE. The measures recorded were the reaction time (RT), accuracy of the response, and N400 and P600 wavelengths signifying the activation of literal and figurative meanings. It was hypothesized that idiomatic expressions that are less salient (i.e., less well-known and less familiar) would be interpreted by bilinguals dominant in Spanish first in their literal sense and that the literal meaning of the phrase would be more readily available in their mental lexicon. For the bilinguals dominant in English, it was hypothesized that the figurative meaning would be more readily available and processed faster than the literal meaning, thus evoking shorter reaction times and smaller amplitudes of the N400 and P600 potentials. An example of figurative incongruent is, I was feeling nervous about going up on stage, but my fellow actors all told me to take a deep breath and break a leg.-DAMAGE, and for incongruent literal, I received a package from my mother, who always told me that I’m too skinny, and it turned out to be a piece of cake.-SIMPLE. Analysis of the results showed only a partial support for the hypothesis that dominant English bilinguals would have smaller N400 and P600 amplitudes for incongruent figurative than for incongruent literal targets. There was a dynamic interplay of literal and figurative meanings of idioms, conforming to the N400 hypothesis but not the P600 hypothesis wavelength. The N400 wavelength results are consistent with the Configuration Model (Cacciari & Tabossi, 1988) and Literal Salience Model (Cieślicka, 2006a), and the P600 wavelength results are consistent with Giora’s (2002) Graded Salience Hypothesis.
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