Nienke Meulman


Brain potential studies on second language processing

Many of us have the experience that learning another language as an adult is difficult. My research examines whether learners can acquire certain aspects of a new language as well as some of the factors that influence this process. The main focus is on age effects ('Does it matter whether a learner starts the acquisition process at an early or a later age?') and effects of the first language ('To what extent does the first language background of the learner influence the acquisition of a new language?').

I concentrate on one particular grammatical property, namely grammatical gender. This property is notoriously difficult for second-language learners and its characteristics differ considerably between languages. I investigate grammatical gender processing in learners of German and Dutch with varying ages of onset of acquisition and first-language backgrounds.

As a measure of processing, I study event-related brain potentials (ERPs), which reveal online neural activity underlying language comprehension while a person is reading or listening to a sentence. This way, ERPs can give an indication of processing difficulties and allow to draw inferences about the nature of that difficulty.

When bringing this kind of research into practice, one encounters many problems. Consequently, I also focus on some methodological aspects. First, I work on the many challenges related to designing and analyzing data from a large-scale ERP study that was conducted in different languages and at different locations. Second, I investigate new approaches for studying age effects in ERP research, particularly with respect to statistical analysis. Finally, I look at the effect of the modality of stimulus presentation (visual vs. auditory).

This project is part of the NWO-funded Vici project “The age effect in bilingual development: grammatical gender in second language acquisition and first language attrition”, awarded to my supervisor prof. dr. Monika Schmid. The co-supervisors of my PhD project are dr. Laurie Stowe , dr. Simone Sprenger and dr. Martijn Wieling.

In short

My research focusses on second-language acquisition. I study event-related brain potentials (ERPs) in second-language learners, to answer questions about effects of the age and first language of a learner.