Second Language Semantic Retrieval in the Bilingual Mind: The Case of Korean-English Expert Bilinguals

The present study aims to explore the relationship between proficiency level and semantic retrieval in the second language. A group of Korean bilinguals who speak English with high proficiency performed semantic relatedness judgement tasks of two hundred English word pairs. Unbeknownst to the participants, half of the words in both the related and the unrelated categories contained a “hidden prime”—a common first syllable shared by the two words, if translated into Korean. Each participant’s event-related potential (ERP) was recorded while reading the words. While a former study by Thierry and Wu (2007) found that Chinese-English bilinguals were affected by the hidden primes, thus causing a “N400 reduction effect” in their averaged ERP, the bilingual group of the present study was unaffected by the hidden primes. The difference between the bilingual groups’ performance between Thierry and Wu’s study and the present study is likely caused by the higher English proficiency of the bilingual group in the present study. This provides additional evidence supporting the Revised Hierarchical Model of semantic retrieval proposed by Kroll and Steward (1994), which suggests that increased proficiency leads to reduced reliance on the first language during second language semantic retrieval.

Thesis Author: Janice Si-Man Lam

Year Completed: 2018

Thesis Chair: Dan P. Dewey


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