Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Research Article

Processing empty categories in a second language: When naturalistic exposure fills the (intermediate) gap  *


a1 Department of Clinical Language Sciences, School of Psychology, University of Reading


An ongoing debate on second language (L2) processing revolves around whether or not L2 learners process syntactic information similarly to monolinguals (L1), and what factors lead to a native-like processing. According to the Shallow Structure Hypothesis (Clahsen & Felser, 2006a), L2 learners’ processing does not include abstract syntactic features, such as intermediate gaps of wh-movement, but relies more on lexical/semantic information. Other researchers have suggested that naturalistic L2 exposure can lead to native-like processing (Dussias, 2003). This study investigates the effect of naturalistic exposure in processing wh-dependencies. Twenty-six advanced Greek learners of L2 English with an average nine years of naturalistic exposure, 30 with classroom exposure, and 30 native speakers of English completed a self-paced reading task with sentences involving intermediate gaps. L2 learners with naturalistic exposure showed evidence of native-like processing of the intermediate gaps, suggesting that linguistic immersion can lead to native-like abstract syntactic processing in the L2.

(Received June 29 2011)

(Revised March 27 2012)

(Accepted April 09 2012)

(Online publication May 28 2012)


  • empty categories;
  • L2 processing;
  • Shallow Structure Hypothesis;
  • wh-traces;
  • successive cyclic movement


c1 Address for correspondence: Christos Pliatsikas, Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging and Neurodynamics, University of Reading, Reading, Berkshire RG6 6AL, UK


*  This study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (Project no.: PTA-030–2006-00359). We would like to thank Giuli Dussias and an anonymous reviewer for their constructive feedback. Additionally, we would like to thank Stavroula-Thaleia Kousta and Gabriella Vigliocco for providing us with space to test some participants at University College London, and also the “Scholars” language school (Kallithea, Greece), Athanassios Protopapas and Eleni Vlahou (University of Athens) for providing us with space to test participants in Greece.