|dc.description.abstract||The present thesis investigates grammatical gender processing in French as a first
and second language. It focuses mainly on whether non-native speakers can achieve
native-like representation and processing of gender, and whether the native language
(L1) influences the acquisition of the second language (L2).
Theoretical linguistic models have made two contrasting assumptions
concerning the ability of late bilinguals to acquire grammatical gender in their L2.
While some models propose that grammatical features, such as gender, are no longer
available for L2 acquisition if they are not present in L1 (Hawkins & Chan, 1997),
others assume that these features are still available via the universal grammar if
required in the L2 (Schwartz & Sprouse, 1996; White, 1989, 2003). These
assumptions, however, are supported only by off-line studies and do not provide a
comprehensive account for gender representation and processing. The present thesis
uses online techniques to address these questions both in language comprehension
and language production.
The first chapters are devoted to comprehension processes and examined French
native speakers, English-French and German-French bilinguals’ performance during
the processing of correct and syntactically anomalous sentences, using ERPs and
eye-movements to record behaviour. We concluded that, like native speakers,
English-French bilinguals are sensitive to gender agreement violations. Thus, we
argue that late bilinguals are able to acquire the gender system of their L2 even if this
grammatical feature is not present in their L1. On the other hand, the performance of
the German speakers we tested suggests that the presence of a competing gender
system in the native language may hamper gender acquisition in L2. The influence of
the native language may vary, however, according to both proficiency and how
gender systems map across languages, as suggest the results we obtained with
Spanish bilinguals tested in language production.
In a second series of experiments, we examined determiner selection in French
to further investigate gender representation and processing, but in language
production. Using a picture-word interference paradigm, we compared the
production of simple and complex noun phrases (NP) in French native speakers,
English-French and Spanish-French bilinguals. From our results, we argue that gender representation is similar in L1 and L2, but that gender processing is less
incremental in non-native speakers in that they do not compute agreement between
the noun and other elements of the NP as automatically as native speakers do. The
absence of interference between the two gender systems of the Spanish-French
bilinguals we tested suggests that the gender systems of the two languages may be
autonomous in highly proficient bilinguals.
Our results suggest that highly proficient bilinguals can reach native-like
representation and processing of gender in their L2 and that such is not constrained
by either the age of onset of learning or the grammar of the learners L1||en