Nienke Meulman


Second language processing: electrophysiological studies and data analysis methods

To what extent, and under which circumstances, is it possible to reach the same level as a native speaker when learning a second language? My research addresses some aspects of this question, using experiments in which the electrical activity of the brain (EEG) of second language speakers was measured and innovative data analysis methods were applied. 

Participants in the experiments were second language speakers of Dutch with a Romance language background (e.g., Spanish) and second language speakers of German with a Slavic language background (e.g., Polish). They listened to sentences with incorrect use of grammatical gender (‘de/het’ in Dutch; ‘der/die/das’ in German), after which their brain signal was compared to that of native speakers to reveal unconscious cognitive processing mechanisms. 

The results argue against the existence of a critical period for learning a second language, and show how the first language can influence the second language. These results are based on so called ‘generalised additive modelling’ (GAM) analyses, which reveal patterns that would have remained hidden with traditional EEG analysis techniques, thus highlighting the importance of using adequate statistical techniques that do not lose information by averaging. In addition, we introduce a new set of (GAMs-based) measures with which individual differences in the EEG signal of second language speakers can be studied. This research therefore does not only aim at advancing our understanding of second language acquisition, but also makes a methodological contribution to analysing the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms.

Supervisors: prof. dr. Martijn Wieling and prof. dr. Monika Schmid

Co-supervisors: dr. Simone Sprenger and Laurie Stowe

This project was 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 prof. dr. Monika Schmid.

In short

My research focussed on second language acquisition. I studied event-related brain potentials (ERPs) in second language speakers, to answer questions about age effects and the influence of the first language.