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Does metalinguistic awareness of a dispreferred structure predict priming within- and across-languages in heritage language children?

Ioli Baroncini

University of Mannheim, Germany

This study explores whether the acceptability rate of an ungrammatical/dispreferred structure predicts priming within- and/or across-languages. In particular, we tested 36 Italian heritage language children (7;5-11;10, M=9;5), with Greek as their societal language, who were attending an Italian immersion school. We investigated a structure available in one language (Greek), but dispreferred in the other (Italian), namely verb-subject-object (VSO).

We conducted an acceptability/metalinguistic awareness task in Italian, where children had to choose between VSO/SVO sentences, along with grammatical/ungrammatical ones (e.g., S-V agreement mismatch), and explain their choice.

In the priming experiments (Italian-to-Italian and Greek-to-Italian), children were asked to hear primes, repeat them, and then describe a new picture; Figure 1. Primes were VSO/SVO sentences and were either in Italian or in Greek, while target sentences that children had to produce were in Italian.

A GLMM revealed that children produced more VSOs after VSO-primes in each task (β=1.72, SE(β)=.55, z=3.14, p<01), and VSOs were mostly produced in the Greek-to-Italian task (β=2.26, SE(β)=.51, z=4.47, p<001). Moreover, children produced more VSOs in the Greek-to-Italian task if they accepted them in Italian (β=.07, SE(β)=.29, z=2.46, p<05); Figure 2.

To conclude, the acceptance of a dispreferred structure in one language (Italian) per se, does not predict within-language priming (Italian-to-Italian), it is crucial only when the other language (Greek) in which this structure is available is activated. This is in line with an account of cross-linguistic influence in terms of activation not only of a syntactic structure, but also of a language in a bilingual’s processing system.

Figure 1: Design of the across-languages priming experiment.
Figure 2: Predicted probability of producing a VSO target sentence as a function of the acceptability rate of VSOs in Italian in the Italian-to-Italian task (on the left) and the Greek-to- Italian task (on the right).